Interview: Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires

Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires

Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires have recieved a lot of praise while touring , including a nod from Rolling Stone citing the track Opelika as one of their favorite songs of the moment.

Birmingham-based band Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires are on the road with their first record, There is a Bomb in Gilead. They play loud and fast, and they do it well. Listen to the record, and you’ll get the sense that these are the guys who, if mocked in a movie, would be the band playing behind a chain-link fence, shattered beer bottles beneath their boots.

Here’s what Guitar World has to say about the release: “Guitarist/ singer/ songwriter Lee Bains III leads his Birmingham, Alabama–based band in a raucous exploration of the intersection between garage rock, soul, country and punk on this full-length debut.”

What interests me most about the record is its honesty. Bains is earnest, and it’s easy to believe that the man who whisper talks lyrics on moodier tracks is the same guy wailing in his Southern lilt two tracks later. Bains is a writer. And here’s what he has to say about it all — the music, the South, and the writing.

There is a Bomb in Gilead

There is a Bomb in Gilead (2012)

KA Webb: The songs on There is a Bomb in Gilead are often, lyrically, first-person tales. There’s a saying in poetry workshops that mostly goes “always assume the speaker in the work isn’t the author.” Do you think the same goes for rock songs? As a songwriter, do you find yourself inhabiting other personas or creating an alter ego of sorts?

Lee Bains: Well, if I write in the first-person, it’s about me and my own experience. That’s actually really important to me. Something that I really took away from bands that I was exposed to as a teenager, stuff like Hot Water Music and Rites of Spring, as well as from the work of 20th century poets like Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams, was to speak only from my own experience and consciousness. Those bands taught me that there is a tremendous amount of power in claiming and sharing your own experience, and those poets taught me that telling one’s personal truth is plenty complicated as it is without introducing outright fiction. Writing honestly isn’t as easy as just doing it; it takes a lot of work and a lot of imagination to strip off the pretense and cliché, and get to the heart of the truth. There is no way in hell I could ever pretend to write from the perspective of somebody else. I would be doing a great disservice to that person.

To go off on a tangent, that’s why I don’t care for the “everyman” type — the kind of writer who will, one minute, sing from the perspective of a West Virginia coal miner, and then another from the perspective of a homeless street kid. I mean, first off, by writing from the perspective of a “type” like that, you are reinforcing these ideas of “types,” one-dimensional people who are completely defined by their job or their region or whatever. You get the sense that everybody in that character’s town is exactly like that character. When, in reality, the writer has no idea what it’s like to have no parents and live on the streets, and he has no idea of what it’s like to live in a holler and work in a coal mine. I think it’s dangerous to speak for other people. Even if you have good intentions and are trying to speak for some forgotten segment of the population, you wind up effectively silencing that group by putting your own words into its collective mouth.

When I was little, I bought a CCR album and brought it home. I was sitting in the living room, listening to the album, and looking at the liner notes. “Born on the Bayou” was playing. Just then, my older brother walked in. “‘Born on the Bayou,’ huh?” he kind of scoffed. “I didn’t know there were any bayous in San Francisco.” I was incredulous, but my folks confirmed it. He was born in California, where there are, in fact, no bayous. I felt lied to, manipulated. Literature students are taught to interrogate the “I,” but people who listen to rock music aren’t. I think that’s an important fact to bear in mind when writing music.

As for the alter ego, that’s a question I ask of myself a lot. Just by virtue of writing, every single writer who ever existed was creating his or her own version of reality. I definitely try not to write from the place of an alter ego. That being said, just by creating a narrative, you are deciding which facts to include and which to leave out. There’s meaning in every one of those decisions. I’m trying to get to the heart of matters, so I am at least working very hard to keep from constructing an alter ego.

Lee Bains live is a sweaty, soulful, rockin' mess. Photo by Marc Millman.

KW: Do you experience a twinge of self-consciousness when sharing what you’ve written with your band mates? The first time you play a song for a crowd?

LB: I’m usually more self-conscious with a band than with a crowd. For one thing, the band needs to be able to hear the words in practice in order to figure out what the hell is going on. For another, the guys in the band are people I know and have to deal with all the time. So, if I have a stinker of a lyric or whatever, they will not hesitate to let me know. I’m very seldom self-conscious at shows. I’m too busy having fun, usually. Plus, when we’re playing live, the guitars are so loud that lyrics can’t be made out very well anyway.

KW: How have the songs evolved in the hands of The Glory Fires?

LB: You know, it’s hard to qualify. I just think the more we play the songs, the more the songs sound like us.

KW: Sound-wise, you guys are tight. Have you encountered a similar chemistry when playing out with other bands?

LB: We definitely have chemistry, but it’s different from other bands I’ve played in. Every band, hopefully, has its own chemistry, and it can be a lifetime endeavor honing on what makes it special. I’ve really loved being able to play in different bands, and feel how different one is from another. Playing with two bands in the same night is really eye opening. You don’t just shift gears; you take a different vehicle entirely.

Lee Bains - Bruce Emberley

Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires. Photo by Bruce Emberley.

KW: You write songs, obviously. Do you write in any other forms?

LB: I used to write poetry a good bit, but haven’t in a while. I’ve also written some short stories.

KW:  You drop Walker Percy’s name in “Everything You Took,” which, apart from making for a nice rhyme, is a way to incorporate the South into an otherwise region-free song. (The track is one of the few that isn’t in-your-face Southern.) Was that a mindful decision?

LB: That’s funny. I guess I think “Everything You Took” is pretty Southern sounding. Hah. The reasons I mentioned Walker Percy were: one, I really did lend my girlfriend a Walker Percy novel that still sits on her bookshelf, and, two, it’s an opportunity to establish a context. When I was in school studying literature, I relished those moments when the writer makes an allusion to the Bible or Shakespeare or Dickinson or the Velvet Underground or whatever. It’s an opportunity to see the artist as being in conversation with other artists.

KW: Both lyrically and musically, the album is tied to its Southern roots. Libraries are filled with books and records written like love songs to our region. What about the South as “home” makes its artists so tied to the geography and culture of the place?

LB: Man, I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time, and I don’t know if I can call it. I do know, however, that I’ll keep writing songs about it for a long time.

KW: I saw you guys play at Secret Stages to a room packed with very excited, sweaty people. You played “Opelika,” and I thought people would rush the stage for a chance to say, “I’ve been there!” What’s it like to be on the receiving side of that energy? What’s it like to provide audiences with that sense of ownership over music?

LB: That makes me feel good to hear. One of the most gratifying things I can hear from somebody is that one of our songs makes them appreciate their hometown or home state. It really has been wild over the past couple months to see people singing along to some of these songs. When we’re playing close to home, in Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee or Mississippi, it makes me feel particularly good. A lot of these songs have to do with reconciling myself to the South and maybe laying claim to my own idiosyncratic idea of the South. Seeing other Alabama kids relating to those songs means a whole lot to me.

KW: Your website says these songs were written during your stint with the Dexateens. How does it feel to have the record complete and be out playing the songs with the Glory Fires?

LB: It feels great. We’ve been having a lot of fun playing so many shows, and getting to a place where we’re having fun with the songs. We’re all about ready to get started on the new record, though.

And we’ll be waiting.

For more information on Lee Bains, or to purchase a copy of There is a Bomb in Gilead, visit www.thegloryfires.com.

About KA Webb

KA Webb spends time tending to her little garden and her dog called Hank. Sometimes, she writes. She is a contributing writer for You Hear This and Weld for Birmingham.

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