Interview: Dutch americana artist and member of Matthews Southern Comfort Eric Devries
How the Beatles and punk rock lead to Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle.
Every now and again Americana UK takes a look at americana in one of our European neighbours to make sure we are keeping fully abreast of all recent developments across the whole genre. While americana is definitely considered a niche music in the Netherlands, singer-songwriter Eric Devries has a higher profile than that may imply due to his long career in Dutch music and his current membership of Iain Matthews’ Matthews Southern Comfort. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Eric Devries to discuss his new acoustic album ‘Song & Dance Man’, what it is like being a member of Matthews Southern Comfort and the current state of americana in the Netherlands. Eric Devries describes his musical journey from being a Beatles fan as a child to the music of the holy trinity of Texas singer-songwriters, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle. He also explains how the pandemic provided the opportunity for him to record an acoustic album for the first time in his long career. As well as being a musician, Eric Devries describes his work as a promotor of americana artists and singer-songwriters generally in the Netherlands. Finally, he shares his love of the Pork Pie Hat which has had a hipster reputation since Charles Mingus wrote his elegy to Lester Young, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, though Eric Devries admits it also has a lot to do with the photographic challenges of having a shiny bald head.
For our UK readers, can you explain what the Netherlands americana scene is like?
It is niche. There are several venues that book americana, there are two big festivals in the Netherlands. We started a thing called Listening Venues which are small venues, from 100 to 200 people tops, where people can just listen. It may seem an obvious thing to do, but if you go to a concert people are constantly talking through the music and there are now several sizes of venues where people can simply sit down and listen. Americana is maybe not big in the Netherlands, but it has a small and enthusiastic community.
You have had a varied career, why is now the time to release your 4th solo album ‘Song & Dance Man’?
The time is now because of the pandemic and having time on my hands. My third album was in 2014, and after that, I started working with a band again, called Hidden Agenda Deluxe, and we recorded an album of original material. We also worked with singer-songwriter Carter Sampson from Oklahoma. We managed to tour Italy, and someone thought it would be a good idea if we recorded a Christmas album, haha, while we were in mid-July in Italy. It was really, really hot and somebody just thought of the idea of doing a Christmas album so we did a Christmas album with Carter Sampson. Later on, we did one with Oh Susanna, from Canada, and it gave us the opportunity to do a small tour here in the Netherlands, and in the meantime, Iain Matthews asked me to be part of the resurrected Matthews Southern Comfort in 2017. We started recording and touring up until the pandemic and then lockdown came. We had just released a second album, ‘The New Mine’, and we had a two-week tour lined up in Germany, and we couldn’t go. We weren’t sure how soon we would be able to go out again, so I thought I’ve got time on my hands and I know someone who has a studio and he has got nothing to do, so let’s make a new album. That is how it started, really, and I had some songs lined up, and some songs I had written just before I went into the studio, and it seemed like the right time. I was hoping that the pandemic would have been over sooner so I could start playing again, and so we worked with a record company from Germany, who were really enthusiastic about the album, and we then had to decide the right time to release the album. We picked November hoping everything would be over and open again, but it took another four months of lockdown, haha. We are out now and playing again, I’ve played four shows so far so it is good.
How did you manage to record ‘Song & Dance Man’ which you have said is your pandemic record?
We wanted to keep it as acoustic as possible, and I’ve been running a singer-songwriter night for ten years up until the pandemic hit in the city of Eindhoven. I booked singer-songwriters and americana artists from the States and Canada, also UK artists, and people were always asking me “Is there an album of you completely acoustically because you mostly record with a band?”. So I wanted to keep this as acoustic as possible, and the producer Janus Koolan thought of getting Lucas Beukers on upright bass, and I have done some gigs with fiddle player Joost van Es over the years, so it seemed obvious to include him as well. So it was three people in the studio, me, Janus, and Lucas, and we recorded the songs in one take, including the lead vocals, and I was behind the glass and then with a metre and a half social distancing, not touching, haha, that is how we recorded it.
You said you recorded live, so who was responsible for the arrangements?
We had one night where we just sort of touched upon the songs, and the guys took notes on how the structure of the songs went, and then it was basically when we pressed the button it was one, two, three, four… and we will see how we get to the end, haha. We then listened back, and the other night I was explaining to the audience that we did sixteen songs in two days, which is a lot, and then Janus corrected me and he said we did three takes for some of them, so you have to triple it, and we just decided on what was the best take of the song, including the lead vocals it is all live.
Why have you gone for an acoustic bluegrass sound on the new record?
I think of it as americana, because it has touches of bluegrass, and there is more folky stuff, but it is a bluegrass setting with mandolin, upright bass, fiddle, and acoustic guitar or banjo. It has a bit of everything I think, haha.
What did you think after two days of recording when you listened back, were there any surprises?
I was surprised because some songs I had never played before in public, there are a couple of older songs, one or two that I gave a makeover because I had done them with another band on another album, but not on any of my solo albums. It is just amazing with those guys, to sit down and start playing and a whole arrangement evolves while you are playing it. So I was pleasantly surprised, haha.
How do you write your songs, are you structured, or is it as and when the muse takes you?
It falls in between both approaches, and it seems that whenever you have a deadline for an album to record that the songs come more quickly, and sometimes when you don’t have an outlet for them it can be a couple of months before I write a song. I’m always trying to think of an idea or something, but it is not like I’m writing an album every year, and why should I. There was this guy who only made one full album in his career, Willis Alan Ramsey, who when asked why doesn’t he write a new album, is just like, what is wrong with the old one, haha.
You’ve called your new record ‘Song & Dance Man’, where does the dance come from?
Well I was thinking, and it was inspired by the song that I wrote, ‘Ballad Of A Song & Dance Man’ when Iain Matthews told me how he had nothing to do and time on his hands in a hotel room in London, and he thought who can I call, and he mentioned he called Van. I just broke into the conversations and said “Van, you don’t mean Van Morrison, Van The Man?” and he was like, “Yes”. Evidently, Van came over and they had a drink, and Van is a hero of mine as well, and I was trying to work out a song about the moment as a young man you get inspired by somebody you listen to on the radio, and you decide that life is going to be your life as well, and the two things came together. I like to think I am in a tradition of singer-songwriters, and you can also call them song & dance men. They have a song you can listen to and a dance to dance to, and you have an evening of entertainment. So the term song and dance man and Van Morrison came together in the song.
Is this acoustic record going to be a one-off?
I’m hoping to do another one like it, probably, because there are some songs in the pipeline again, and there may be some very old songs that I have never recorded that could work in this setting with this new lineup. We started playing in October or November last year, and there was just one opportunity for us to get out there and perform in front of an audience, and the second one was in January in Germany, and the whole audience was wearing mouth masks and I tell you, that is a funny sight, haha. We are starting to get the setlist and the repertoire down, and you just get a taste for more and it goes down very well. It is easy with an acoustic setup and the players are great, so I’m getting really enthusiastic about it and playing again.
Do you have any plans to get to the UK and America?
America, I’m not too sure how things are going with COVID and such, but I would love to come back to the UK. We did some tours with Matthews Southern Comfort, and my album was released in November but we couldn’t get it into the UK because of the new Brexit regulations. I heard the record company had a whole bunch of albums sitting in no man’s land until March when it became available in the UK. I’m hoping I can find somebody to work with and book me a few shows.
How did you get to join Iain Matthews in the reconstituted Matthews Southern Comfort?
We met for the first time after he moved to the Netherlands in 2000 or something, and we actually met when we were singing backing vocals for the guitarist and producer he works with now, who is also my best friend, B J Baartmans. I think that was in 2008, and we were singing harmonies on a song for another singer-songwriter, and I heard he was doing another album with MSC in 2010, and we met a few times over the years at a party maybe, and I booked him for the singer-songwriter night that I hosted in Eindhoven one time as a solo artist. When you are sort of in the same scene you get to meet one another at some point, and he heard me sing and because they need a fourth guy as a backup singer he asked me, and also the fact he wanted to record new original material again was for me another reason to join.
Iain Matthews has a very long history in the music business, what have you learnt from working with him?
A lot, haha. It is like kindred spirits, we are always looking for the best song and he has always been searching for good songs everywhere, and he is an example to me, at the very least, and it is great singing together, which is just amazing. There is a funny thing, I remember being seven or eight years old and listening to ‘Woodstock’ on the radio, and it is amazing that years later we are both on the same stage singing that song, that is really funny, haha.
What did that feel like?
It is great, it is an amazing thing to be doing and you see your whole life passing by, you are like seven or eight and now you are performing the song. He cannot not play ‘Woodstock’ of course, he just has to, so we put it in the set in a different version to what it was on the album that got to number one in the UK in 1970.
The original MSC were an English country rock band, and now it is a Dutch americana band, how would you define MSC compared to an Iain Matthews solo album?
It is the harmony vocals, and the instrumentation and the lead guitar player is a bit of a virtuoso and plays slide guitar and stuff, and the pianist is also very versatile and an amazing player. There is no specific Dutch influence there, I think, haha.
Who are the biggest influences on your music?
It was the Beatles initially, and I figured out that the music I was listening to when I was young was played by four guys playing in a band and they were called the Beatles. The whole concept of a band was an eye-opener, and I thought that is what I want to do. It wasn’t Van Morrison, even though I say that in ‘Ballad Of A Song & Dance Man’ with that song, ‘Hardnose The Highway’. When I was fourteen or fifteen and punk rock came along from the UK, and also in the Netherlands, it was a perfect opportunity to get out and be on a stage even though we couldn’t play, haha, or not much anyway. From there it wasn’t far to discover Bob Dylan, and I think sometime in the ‘90s somebody took me to the Paradiso in Amsterdam, which is one of the great venues in the Netherlands, to see Steve Earle and then something clicked and I thought it isn’t out of fashion to be playing that kind of music, people are still doing that. So it opened up a whole new thing for me to discover Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and all those people. Then there was the whole record collection of my mum and dad, just reappeared into view with Dolly Parton, John Denver, Neil Diamond, and all those things that I had neglected for some time, haha. So it was the Beatles, also in the punk era the Jam, and Paul Weller was a big influence and he also recorded songs that were almost acoustic and that always appealed to me. Then there was Crowded House, and we had a thing in the Netherlands that really started the unplugged scene when Crowded House did their unplugged thing, and you then discover it is not that far from where you came from really.
What is it with your signature Pork Pie Hat, I thought that was for jazz and ska musicians?
Haha, I think it is fashionable, haha, it is smart and it is now a signature item for me, but sometimes you get a real shiny head when you are bald on photos and that, so that is why I really do it. I’m not the only one, Michael Weston King wears one, haha. There are a couple more out there, and I just like them, Pork Pies, haha.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which three artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
I haven’t listened to it yet, but Steve Earle has a new album coming out where he covers Jerry Jeff Walker and I’ve very curious about that. I haven’t been listening to much music lately, but I have been listening to the Matthews Baartmans Conspiracy which really is a pandemic album because he wrote about the pandemic, and that is Iain and my mate BJ of course. My wife Mo has just got the new Janis Ian album and I’ve been listening to that. There are some classic albums that I always listen to like Guy Clark, and I’ve been listening to a live version of ‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan that I found on YouTube, and I read that he asked the players to come along because he had a live gig but they didn’t know it was for television. I think Scarlet Rivera, fiddle player, had never been on television before, and all the big brass of CBS were also there.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
I hope to see you soon, and if I can’t get over with my album there is talk that Matthews Southern Comfort will be on the road and recording within the next year as well.