The Southern Belles have been sounding better than ever lately, and maybe that’s because they’ve been busier than ever lately. Back in August, the psychedelic country-jam quartet independently released their third studio album, In The Middle Of The Night, and then tore through a huge fall tour in support of it. Tomorrow night, they’ll open for Tauk at Charleston’s Pour House, and then this weekend they’ll send off 2017 in a two-night run at The Camel, with fellow Richmond “party grass” band, Jackass Flats. They’ll have a quick moment to rest before embarking on what should a memorable notch upon their career: Starting on January 10, their 2018 winter tour, eleven nights of which will have them open for none other than Yonder Mountain String Band.
Amidst all of this excitement, The Southern Belles’ Adrian Ciucci still had time to give The Poke Around his thoughts on everything from songwriting, to his favorite music venues, to growing in the music business. Below that, you can stream the latest album, in it’s majestic entirety, courtesy of Spotify.
The Poke Around: The tour coming up with Yonder Mountain String Band. Do you have any particular goals for the tour, or anything you’re hoping to get out of it?
Adrian Ciucci: Running a band is kind of like watching a plant grow: you see it every day, you don’t notice how big its growing. It’s nice to have clearly defined milestones, and come up and feel really evident, and this just feels like one of them. We’ve been doing our thing for six years now, and we get a call like this to play with a band of that reputation, to take us up into some bigger rooms, like the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville. They have a lot of cool venues on their tour list, and that is exciting. So hopefully the venues like us, and it opens a relationship to continue talking about going back to these places.
But they’re going to give us the opportunity to play in front of maybe a crowd that isn’t necessarily expecting what the Southern Belles are going to do, or that have ever heard of us before. So my goal is just to play well (laughs). I hope we hit it off with them, and that we hit it off with their fans.
I think that given the style of YMSB, their fans will find a lot in your music to dig.
I hope so, I think so. We’re going to ease into the rock element of it. We’ve written enough songs over the years that are spread out stylisically and mood wise, so we’ll ease them into it.
It’s pretty cool that you can go from playing a tour with bands on the more rock side, like Schwizz and Space Carnival, and Tauk coming up, and now go to open for a band like Yonder Mountain. It speaks to your versatility.
We’ve evolved as a band, and we try not to leave the old material behind, so we have a fun catalogue at this point. When we got the call for this, I even went back and made sure they (Yonder Mountain) had the newest album. I didn’t want them to hear just Sharp As A Knife from five years ago…although even that has some rock songs on it. I still think about who decided to make the pairing, because I think it’s great. A bigger ticket show in a nice venue, and they could’ve just as easily had a bluegrass band come out and open. I think it’s cool that they went with a more rock and roll band.
So when you say the new album, you’re referring to In The Middle Of The Night. I just gave it my first spin this week, and I love it.
We’re happy with it, and I’m still happy with it. Which, after four months, speaks to the amount of work we put into it. It’s easy to be really over-critical with yourself once everything’s down on tape, and you can’t go back and change it anymore. But, I felt like we did exactly what we wanted to do with this record. From the way it looks, to the way it sounded, to what songs are on it. It just seemed like an album that was waiting for us to make it. “L.A. Moves” was written a couple years ago, but was never put down on any other record. It always got a good reaction live, people liked it live. The other songs, we finished writing literally in the studio. The material is all the newest material, but even some of it had been in live rotation for a couple years. But it all seems to go together really well.
The compositional work alone is amazing—the different parts, the tempo changes. Does that aspect speak more to your initial songwriting process? Or do you have a lot of songs that form from the band playing on them and trying them out?
Oh yes, both. By the time they’re done, the whole band’s written the songs. Songs more often than not start with one of us. Most songwriting, for me anyways, happens when I’m alone, when it just comes up. But when those songs were put together, like when I was writing them lyrically, there was definitely a direction and a story. The mood of the music, it just sort of matched what’s going on lyrically. There are a lot of parts, a lot of changes. We’ve always written songs like that, though not every song we have written is that way. But yeah, a lot of transitions, a lot of tempo changes, I think it drives some people crazy sometimes (laughs), that the songs get written that way. But I think it gives them a lot of character.
Have you written any songs that you found were hard to play live?
Oh yeah, definitely. Even some songs that we’ve been playing for a long time, I still have to take a deep breath before the songs starts, when we play it live. We make it a little hard for ourselves, in the parts that we write. I can’t say I’m surprised when it’s hard live, because I see it coming, I know it’s going to be difficult. Performing it live, that’s always a whole other conversation we have to have, after we leave the studio. Because, you can add layers, you can basically have three arms in the studio. And then you have to go on stage, and then you say, well I can’t make every sound on stage that I made on the record. I have to choose the most important ones. Making a record and executing it live are two different skillsets that we are continuing to work on.
I’m sure The Southern Belles’ musical influences are all over the map, but when it comes to you as a songwriter, do you have influences, lyrically speaking?
Shoot, I mean I’ve been listening to music my whole life, so I’ve heard a lot of it. It’s kind of like you’re a tumbleweed, rolling through the musical landscape, and you pick up pieces that stick with you along the way. Rarely am I saying I want to write a song that sounds like this. But I can hear my influences in the way the songs come out, yes I can. Like, we embraced our love of Yes on this record. Specifically, the record Fragile, which has Long Distance and Roundabout, some of the more classically Yes songs that most people have heard. I even showed Leslie the album art, and said I love the cartoon-y aspects to it.
I want to try and be clever, I want to try and have some subtle cultural references, and some inside jokes, some things that maybe people don’t catch the first time. Like, first they’re just words, and then they listen to it again, and they’re like, oh, that’s what he’s talking about. I think Donald Fagen was good at writing lyrics that told a story, and you could follow through and they’re painting a picture, but it was also real street lingo. Like, his cultural and drug references just really subtle and understated, I always appreciated that. The way Pink Floyd does their lyrics, I’ve always gotten a big kick out of that. Just the theatrical element. I like a little of that in my music, a little theatre.
The idea running behind In The Middle of the Night, at least as I hear it, paints a picture of the band on the road. As I look at your tour dates, you guys seem like some of the biggest road warriors I’ve ever interviewed.
I think it’s in our DNA at this point. When we started, when we were playing around Richmond at any place that would have us, we were having fun and we didn’t know how to run a band in the business fashion that it needs to be run in, in today’s modern era. We just wanted get out of town, and in those days, getting from Richmond to Charlottesville was really exciting. And we just sort of kept doing it, going farther, and you play places where you either really hit it off with people, or for some reason you really like that venue and you keep going back.
So, do we want to be on the road a hundred and fifty dates a year for the rest of our lives? No, probably not. But, for one, as any band would tell you, it’s one of the only surefire ways to keep money coming in, is to tour. Sometimes you see people that are seventy-five and still on the road all the time, that’s how you make money in the music business anymore. Record sales are not what they were, even for somebody who makes a lot of money selling records.
But yeah, we’re gonna tour a lot in 2018. I don’t see a day where we’re not touring, on some level. When I’m an old man, I’d love to have a really well defined tour schedule, a fall tour, a spring or winter tour, good festival dates in the summer. Because yeah, touring is also exhausting, it’s also very fun. 2018 is probably going to be our busiest year ever.
Is there a music venue that you’ve ever seen a show in and hoped that you’d get to play one day?
I was actually just talking to Carper about this last night, talking about how…like I said before, it’s hard to notice the progress sometimes. The venues you grow into, and the venues you grow out of, thinking about the perspective of some of the venues you grew into that you thought was going to be a huge thing, a huge step from where you were, musically and in the scheme of things. And then you grow out of it, and think, that’s so funny that I ever thought that was going to be a life changing opportunity. Looking ahead, I wonder how many bands feel that about playing venues that I would just love to play at.
In Richmond, there is a venue that is currently called The Altria Theatre, more commonly remembered as the Landmark Theatre, and even before that as The Mosque. It’s down in BCU, right in Monroe Park, and it’s designed to look like a Mosque. I think it holds a little over 3000 people. I’ve seen Widespread Panic play there, and I’ve seen Trey play there, but I’ve also seen Book of Mormon there, it’s just a really great theatre. That would be a dream venue for me to play in Richmond, I’ve always wanted to play there, and maybe one day we will. Obviously, an outdoor venue like Red Rocks, that would really be something.
The Georgia Theatre, in Athens, that’s one that I’ve never played in that I would really like to get into. Been to some great shows there. I have an affinity to old theatres, I don’t why, I just do. I would love to have that be where the Southern Belles play, in old theaters, if I had my way.
Apparently your latest shows at Richmond’s The Camel were packed to the brim, and yet you said you wouldn’t want to stop playing there, being that it’s always been your hometown place.
You know, I love the Camel, and the people that own it. I saw them just yesterday. You know as they say in business, if you’re not growing, you’re dying? That’s basically the same with a band, you gotta keep doing stuff. There’s just so many people making music, so much going on. If you want to keep your little slice of people’s attention, you gotta keep putting stuff out there, gotta keep doing interesting things and building, so that you don’t fall by the wayside. Because somebody else is out there, working really hard on their music everyday.
With that being said, with the venues coming up, I always wanted to make sure we were leaving the local venues in a really good way. I didn’t want to play them for so long that people were bored of attending anymore. Or have it be remembered as, oh, The Southern Belles did really well there for awhile, but then people stopped coming, that kind of thing. I wanted to stop when it was packed.
Here, there have been bands doing great residencies from a lot of places. From little holes in the wall, to The Camel. So, growing up, there were always bands that had residencies, and then we got a residency, at The Camel. And you know, we did it for four years, and may have done it for too long, technically. But that place is just great, it’s just steeped in Richmond music lore.
We did eventually have to leave, despite what I said in that interview, because it was time to give it to somebody else. But even now, we’re going back to have a little throwback show.
NYE this weekend. Is there anything extra special in store for those two nights?
Oh, we have something planned. We’d been talking about what we’ve done, and how to grow on that, and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I know Jackass Flats and us we’ll be alternating. We’ll pay early one night, and them late, and then we’ll switch. I know they have some surprises in store, and we’ll have what will hopefully be some surprises in store.
To purchase tickets for The Southern Belles shows this week, including their New Years Eve run at The Camel, visit their website at http://www.thesouthernbellesmusic.com/
Article written by Miles Hurley
Photo by Jameson Midgett