In 1973, before he got arrested for marijuana and spent two years in prison, Gary Higgins released Red Hash, an album of easy, gruff and stoned folk songs. The time away, unfortunately, for the most part curtailed the forward momentum on Higgins' musical career and he remained largely unknown and lost. That is until Drag City Records tracked him down and reissued the album in 2005. Spurred by that rerelease, Higgins asked Drag City to put out some of his current tunes and later this month, they'll release Higgins' newest album, Seconds, where the growly burner "Demons" is from. Higgins was gracious enough to speak with Gracie Remington about his career, his family and what it's simultaneously like to look forward and back. Their conversation is after the jump.
Download: Gary Higgins, "Demons"
How did the whole Drag City thing come about? I read that Ben Chasny from Six Organs of Admittance covered you, and that inspired a sort of manhunt.
It did end up sort of like that. Ben Chasny did the song off the Red Hash album, “Thicker Than A Smokey,” and unbeknownst to me, he’d put something on the CD saying if anybody knew where I was to get in touch with him. He and a guy by the name of Zach Cowie, who at that time was the sales person for Drag City, were really good friends, and Zach sent a letter around to every Gary Higgins he could find in the United States. It basically asked if I was the person who had something to do with the Red Hash album, and if I did, to get in touch with him. I got it, and I didn’t buy into it. I thought it was a crank thing, so I sat on it for a while. Then I thought, “What the hell do I have to lose? I have absolutely nothing to lose, so why don’t I see what happens.” So I made a phone call and things just mushroomed from there.
What was it like between recording Red Hash and 2006? Were you working on music then? I read about your spending some quality time in jail and then getting married and having a kid—were you still working on music?
Not as much as I’d have liked because there were priorities like eating and having a roof over one’s head that came first, but I was still playing.
Were you still working with the same group of people? I noticed with the lineup of your current band, there are still some holdovers from the Red Hash recording days. Were you still working with the same group of people the whole time?
Pretty much. I’ve been working with the same group of people for just about ever.
What was that like, given that you had recorded the album several years before? Having it reissued, and dealing with the promotion around that—what was that experience like?
It was absolutely magical, actually. There was this whole kind of subculture going on around that album, which stemmed from the vinyl record collectors, because they kept the thing alive because it was a fairly short print. It had some collector’s value over the years and because of that, there were people listening again. I didn’t really know that. I knew a little bit about the collecting thing- every once in a while, someone would tell me it was in a collector’s magazine, and I’d think, “Oh, that’s pretty neat,” but I had no idea that there was this musical subculture going around with it, which was really rewarding because it was a completely different group of people, much younger than myself, and they were getting into the music. It was just very pleasing. The whole thing was just magical.
How was the return to music after all of those years? Do you feel that after living your life independent from it and independent from the industry, do you have any particular insight on it? Do you feel differently about it, given that Red Hash was recorded and then, decades later, it was released?
I actually do. I’ve discussed this many times. I think that if it hadn’t happened the way it happened, I wouldn’t have survived. So it worked out probably the only way that it ever could. I was pretty crazy back in the day, and lots of stuff happened to me, and I don’t know if I would have ever been able to deal with doing it on the level that it ended up being done on. In one respect, it couldn’t have happened at a better time because I was kind of free to be able to play again whereas 20 years ago, it would have been even more difficult. It actually all worked out. The only thing I regret is that I’m getting older and I can’t do it forever. I’m going to try, but it’s just not going to happen. That’s the only thing I regret, but I’m just not capable of taking the wear and the tear that I used to be able to, like all of the young people. It used to never bother me, but I can’t do that anymore. I have no desire to.
What was the experience of recording Seconds like?
It was great. Everything about it was just really fun, and everybody was really inspired by the music. Everything just came together really nicely. New material and the chance of getting that material exposed to a fairly large audience is pretty exciting. I’m looking very much forward to that, if it happens. If it’s accepted, great- I hope it is- but if it’s not, I have no regrets.
How is your working relationship with the musicians that you’ve worked with changed over time? Is it more or less the same?
We’ve changed and our circumstances have all changed. We’ve obviously gotten a lot older and each one of us has a family and children and other means of living. For a long time there, we all made our living playing music in the late sixties and early seventies, but it wasn’t very dependable. It was great when we were young, but you just couldn’t count on it to raise a family. You really couldn’t do a heck of a lot other than just doing that. So everybody went around getting means to make money and situating their lives in that respect, and we just had to play whenever we could.
When you got back into the studio over the past couple of years, has the energy been the same as when you recorded earlier, or slightly different?
It’s definitely different, but only because I think everybody’s in a daze that we can do this and we’re just really appreciative and fortunate to still be able to play together. Everybody still has their health, and it’s just pretty neat that it all can happen. We act differently, we’re not as carefree as we used to be, we’re a little more methodical, I think, but it’s probably all good stuff.
I read that you had a son. Does he play music?
He does. He’s playing on this album, as a matter of fact, which makes it very special to me.
What does he play?
He plays guitar.
Provided that the shows pull through, will your son go on tour with you?
Yes. He’s been playing with us since the Red Hash [reissue]. We tried to get as many people back together for that experience that originally recorded it, but one of the guitar players had moved to Russia and it was pretty much impossible to do that, so my son took over the guitar parts that were done by him and that were done by me, which freed me up to play drums on some of the songs. He’s been playing with us all along, since 2005.
What has it been like rehearsing with your son? Has he been playing guitar since he was a baby? Did you encourage it?
Actually, I didn’t encourage it, I discouraged it. At one point in my life, I just thought, “Why do I want to be an artist? It’s so hard to do this, and it’s so discouraging from time to time.” I don’t want him to be like that, I want him to get a good job and all that stuff. So I didn’t discourage it, but I didn’t encourage it. He just picked it all up on his own and he’s turned into a really good guitar player. It couldn’t be better, at least from my end. You have to ask him what he thinks.
In terms of Seconds, is most of the material drawn from recent musical tinkering?
Yes. Most of the stuff was written between 2006 and 2007, with the exception of “Ten-Speed.” That was written in 1975 or 1976, somewhere around there.
Do you have any songs between 1975 and 2006 that you’re interested in going back to?
Oh, absolutely. There are a bunch of songs there. I’ve been going back and forth with Drag City about doing a release of that stuff. It’s not that I don’t want to do it. They really want to do something older, that’s sort of their interest, finding old stuff and dusting it off, so they’re extremely interested in pre-Red Hash material. I just wanted to make sure that I got something new out there. They can have anything they want after that.
I’m assuming you’re still working on new and current things.
So the plan would be to also release that at some point in the future?
That’s kind of ongoing as far as I’m concerned. We’re doing a project with the band that will have songs by everybody in the band. That’s pretty much what we’ve been working on for the past six months or so. I used to be in a band called the Random Concepts that had Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples. Simeon used to be the lead singer in that band, and I played bass in those days. Random Concepts is where we all started from, and Simeon went on to do his own thing, the drummer got in trouble and ended up in jail, and the rest of us went our own way. So the Random Concepts thing is the gist of what we’re doing now. A lot of the stuff is quite old, just dusted off and redone with today’s modern technology. That’s the present project.
Do you plan on continuing to make music and releasing stuff with Drag City in the future?
I absolutely plan on doing it for as long as I can possibly do it. I see no reason to stop. It’s an enormous amount of work, no matter how you look at it. I want to put some of the older tracks down on something at some time; there’s just a lot of material still left to do. If I physically can do it, I plan on doing it.