When Mark Seliger was recording Kicker Town, his second album with his band Rusty Truck, he would often retreat to his car with a day’s recordings, just to see how they sounded when he was behind the wheel — preferably with the windows down.
“I’d listen to see what it sounds like in there when you’re processing it with the wind blowing in,” he explains. “I think that’s the best way to experience music. You have to actively listen rather than have the song just be background.”
That experience, he understands, can become a multimedia experience as the windshield becomes a movie screen and the music becomes a soundtrack to the scenery, whether it’s a busy street in L.A. or the mountain roads around Griffith Park. It’s fitting, as Seliger is better known as a visual artist than as a musician. For nearly 30 years, he has been one of the most prominent rock photographers, and his portraits of Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain and Mick Jagger — among too many others to list — have graced the pages of Rolling Stone, GQ and Vanity Fair.
Featuring members of Grant Lee Buffalo, the Wallflowers and Chalk Farm, Rusty Truck released their debut, Broken Promises, in 2003, establishing Seliger as a songwriter as well as a visual artist. With Kicker Town, he bolsters his reputation with a collection of songs that display a penchant for graceful melodies and evocative lyrics.
Speaking from his office in notoriously driver-unfriendly New York City, Seliger held forth on Willie Nelson’s Stardust album, the concept of a “country opera” and the intersection between the musical and the visual.
What is your background in country music?
Seliger: I grew up in Houston, and it wasn’t until high school that I started to listen to … I wouldn’t say it was country but singer-songwriters. There was this little bar downtown called Anderson Fair, and I would go down there and listen to John Vandiver and Shake Russell and Joe Ely and all these local guys. I remember when I went to college up in East Texas, one of my friends, an RA in my dorm, lent me his car for the weekend to drive to Dallas. He had left Willie Nelson’s Stardust in the car. I had never listened to Willie except for what I heard on the radio, which is not necessarily his greatest stuff. I listened to that album all weekend. It was a gamechanger for me. Over the next five or six years, I slowly got interested in people like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and George Jones. And when I moved to New York, I learned a lot more about some of the old greats like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. Well, they weren’t so “old” then.
Did your photography job bring you into contact with some of these artists?
I worked on a project for Rolling Stone where I actually got to photograph a lot of them. I photographed Charlie Louvin, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings and Willie, Merle and Buck Owens. So I got to meet all these kings of that world. It was an incredible, epic experience. And when I was photographing these guys, I was listening to their music and getting a sense of the landscape from the Appalachian Trail to Bakersfield. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but it was really beautiful. And I was meeting a lot of people like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, who were current then, less classified as country. I was always a fan of pedal steel and mandolin, but it wasn’t until I left Texas that I started to really think about the way country music sounded.
You’ve described Rusty Truck’s new album as a “country opera.” Can you elaborate?
I guess what I mean by that is that it just takes you through the journey of life. I spent a lot of time writing it and drew from a lot of my own personal experiences — memories and even cinematic moments of my life. It’s definitely about losing love, finding yourself in the search for meaning and coming back to a very powerful yet simple resolution. To me, the album covers a lot of ground musically — from fairly upbeat swingin’ honky-tonk songs to these lonesome, melancholic moments. But it also covers a lot of ground emotionally.
Would you describe the songs as autobiographical then?
Some of them definitely are to a certain degree. But I tried to use my imagination to complete the songs so they would be more universal and less about one thing for me. Songwriting for me is like therapy. Photography is not dissimilar. It’s very therapeutic to write my way out of difficult times. It’s an interesting process, and the deeper I dig into it, the more personal experience I draw from. The song that really carved the framework of this particular record was “Beautiful Pain,” which is about going down that lost road and getting left behind. You feel a lot of pain and misery about it, but at the same time, those moments can be very cathartic. It takes me a long time to write a song. It doesn’t come easily. I have to have the right time and the right conditions. I lock the door, sit myself down and just do it. I wrote these songs on acoustic guitar in the privacy of my own world. Then the band reinterpreted them with the producers, and during that process, the songs went to a really great place where it was really about that open and airy sound. They come to life with the band and have a little more weight.
It sounds like you would have to really trust the band to come up with a sound that does these very personal songs justice and expands them in the right way.
It’s funny you say that because we recorded the first day with only one of the producers — Mike Viola, who is a wonderful producer and did most of the preproduction for the record. We tracked three songs that day, but when Andres Levin came in the next day and we re-evaluated where we were going with the songs, we decided we had to start over. That’s rough because we had seven days to do everything. It was hard to let those songs go, but then “Beautiful Pain” really blossomed on the third day, and we were able to leave some room on these songs for this wonderful pedal steel player named Eric Heywood [of Son Volt], who added a lot of texture. And we added a lot of harmonies with Kristin Mooney and Michael Duff, which are a significant part of the storytelling on the album. The band managed to get some really golden moments, and you can hear those different components start to elevate the songs and make them richer and more meaningful.
On iTunes, Kicker Town is accompanied by an eBook. Can you tell me about that aspect of the record?
It’s something I’ve never done before. iTunes very generously allowed me to create a chapter per song, so you get a chance to experience the music in a different way. We included some photographs from my archive, and I collaborated with some great directors who interpreted the music visually. There are interviews with other songwriters, and Will Ferrell does a prose reading of “Buildings” as Ron Burgundy, which is hilarious. It’s a way for people to have a virtual record cover. That part of our world is disappearing, no? The intersection between visual art and music is very important, and it’s something that I’ve been pretty close to for a long time. They definitely have a nice effect on each other, but I don’t think they have to live in the same world at the same time.