“This is C.W. Stoneking!” The voice drawls down the line unmistakably. “I got told to ring this number to have a talk. How ya goin’?” It feels bizarre, having a phone interview with the sharp-dressed and jive-talkin’ bluesman – mainly on account of the vibe one gets that he doesn’t have a phone. Or an email address. Maybe not even electricity. He’s such an anachronistic and unworldly figure in Australian music, it feels like a true walking contradiction to be speaking with him through any communicative medium that isn’t, say, carrier pidgeon.
Then again, that’s always been where the charm lies for Stoneking. His swampy, brassy style of hokum ragtime blues has seen him nominated for ARIAs, praised by the likes of Paul Kelly and evolving into a figurehead of inspiration for a whole wave of blues-and-roots artists in Australia – most notably Lanie Lane, who wrote her song “Jungle Man” about encountering Stoneking for the first time. His most recent album, Gon’ Boogaloo, received some of the best responses of his career – both on a critical and commercial level – and the momentum has not slowed an iota since its release in October 2014.
Ahead of an appearance at Fairgrounds Festival in Berry this weekend – as well as a handful of other Australian dates – we spoke with Stoneking about swearing more than rappers, ghetto blasters and pretty-boys in blues. Also of note before reading further: The transcription of what you are about to read is as close as one can properly get to putting down how Stoneking talks in the medium of plain text. It truly needs to be heard to be believed – every odd pronunciation, every dropped-off g and every use of double-negative slang is here translated with the utmost of care.
Music Feeds: Gon’ Boogaloo has been one of your most successful albums to date. It very much feels like an of-the-moment, impulsive record, capturing you in your element. Is that fair to say? Are you much of a perfectionist when it comes to recording your music?
C.W. Stoneking: Every album’s a product of its time, really. By the same token, I don’t torture myself to listen to my music. I never listen to my music, and I never will unless I’m forced to.
MF: Who’s forcing you to listen to your own music?
C.W.: I gotta do radio sometimes, and they play my songs in-between the talkin’. I gotta just sit there with a hot red face the whole time.
MF: Are you one of those people that can’t stand hearing your own voice back? There’s no shame in that.
C.W.: Ahh, look… I don’t mind hearin’ it, but I don’t wanna hear it anytime after like a month. Y’knowaddamean? If I’ve just recorded somethin’, I can hear that back alright. I could even listen to it next week. When it’s like ten years old or somethin’, it’s always shit.
MF: Do you still have all those old recordings from back in the day? You’ve been playing for over 15 years now, there’d surely be a bit of an archive.
C.W.: Yeah, man; I gotta bunch of cassettes lyin’ around somewhere. I dunno how far they’d stretch back – you’d have, like, ’99? Maybe 2000? They’d be all chopped up by now. I used to use this old ghetto blaster to play back me demos on. I’d just be turnin’, turnin’, turnin’; record, record, record; over an’ over again. I must’a taped over some of ’em a hundred times. You’d play ’em back and you’d find all these bits and pieces of what m’songs would become. Just lil’ ideas scrappin’ ’round here and there, y’know. Ain’t listened to ’em for a long, long time, of course.
MF: It was recently announced that the Music Victoria council have distributed a grant that will allow you to relocate to the U.S. and focus your attention on the market there. That’s a really exciting opportunity – what can you tell us about how that came about?
C.W.: Yeah, that was a good thing. I just done a trip there, and the next thing I knew… bam! I got seven thousand dollars! Guess that’s what happens when y’got a good manager. I ain’t even ever put a rekkid out over there! After Jungle Blues, I did some stuff there solo. I tried to set up some band stuff, but I just kept gettin’ burned by the visa-gettin’ process. Everytime I played there with a band, it’s always been with a scratch band I put together at pretty short notice.
Now that m’band is a bit more normal – like, it doesn’t have friggin’ flugelhorns or whatever else have ya – I decided I’d just have an American band. I got a passport, so I can come and go as I please. I just got a bass player and a drummer now. It’s good to have a band a bit closer to Europe, too. I can just travel over there with ’em, and it’ll take a lot less time than the 25 hours it takes from here.
People always been responding good who’ve heard it over in America. I remember this one time, I was havin’ a coffee somewhere. This guy I never met come up to me, and he was all “C.W. Stoneking! I knew it had to be you, man!” There’s people around that find ya ’cause of the in’nanet, I guess. That’s how they know. It’s gonna be cool playin’ over there. I got two real great ladies in m’band and they sound real good.
MF: Is your family going to be relocating with you when you head over there next year?
C.W.: Not all at once. It’s just gonna be myself to begin with. My family, man… it’s a big unwieldy bunch, I tell ya. Everybody’s got a fair easy lifestyle at the minute, so I don’t wanna shake it all up on my own little whims and fancies. They’ll get over here, I guess, but it’ll take a bitta time.
MF: You’ve got a few kids – are they getting to the age where they have a better understanding of what it is you do?
C.W.: I got four kids. They go from 10 down to 4. They all sorta know about what I do. They’re sorta interested, I guess. They like it pretty good. My boy’s more into rap, I’ve found.
MF: That’s all A-okay in the Stoneking household? You don’t veto the more explicit stuff?
C.W.: I ain’t vetoin’ much o’ nothing. I can’t even veto my own self – the kids all prob’ly hear way worse stuff comin’ outta my mouth than they would any rapper. [laughs]
MF: You’ve been touring a bunch this year, and for some of your Australian dates you’ve been joined on stage by Vika & Linda Bull. They’re pretty much the A-team of backing vocalists in this country – how did you come to work with them?
C.W.: They’re real cool. They did the rekkid, too; along with Maddy and Memphis [Kelly], who’re comin’ up to do this Fairground [sic] thing with me. They’re good to hang ’round. We have a lotta fun together, and man they can sing great. Paul [Kelly] put me onto ’em… well, he put me onto his daughters first, which I was kinda suspicious about.
They were cool, but I pushed again with Paul and he got me onto Vika and Linda, so they came out and I used all of ’em to sing on the rekkid. It had a real good effect. We did three shows in Melbourne the other week, and it was the first time I’ve gotten to use all four of ’em up on stage. It was super-charged, man.
MF: You mentioned using bigger bands for your music in the past – did it kind of feel like that when you were doing these shows at the Corner?
C.W.: Yeah, I guess it did. It’s fun, havin’ a big band up there jammin’ with ya. As long as all the parts are all good and worked out, and everyone’s addin’ somethin’ to the noise – not just bein’ annoyin’, y’know? A different kinda line-up is excitin’ for everybody watchin’, too. I remember when I used t’take m’horn band ’round awhile back, and y’could just see the enjoyment people would get from seein’ somethin’ that wasn’t your usual rock band set-up. It’s real good. I like it.
MF: Before the relocation over to the States, you’ve got a few dates left here in Australia. You’ll be playing Fairgrounds and A Festival Called Panama, as well as a headlining show at Melbourne Zoo; which you’ll be playing with Marlon Williams. These are all fairly unique dates – do you enjoy the quite literal change of scenery from playing your normal shows?
C.W.: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a totally diff’rent kinda atmosphere. It takes people out a bit, y’know? As far as I know, this Marlon fella doesn’t write any songs. He’s prob’ly good-lookin’ enough that it don’t matter to people. I know that all the industry people that I occasionally bump into are all rather glowing ’bout him. I ain’t heard nothin’ that’s blown my mind apart, but I’m sure he’ll have no problems given he’s six-foot-nine and looks like a supermodel. [laughs]
MF: Sometimes, that’s all you need.
C.W.: Usually, man!
C.W Stoneking plays Fairgrounds Festival in Berry, this weekend December 5th. Grab all the deets and ticket links below.
Fairgrounds Festival 2015 Lineup
Father John Misty
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Adam Gibson and the Ark-Ark Birds
Fairgrounds Festival 2015
Tickets on sale now