Confessions of a Carney: Sax man Ralph Carney discusses his new album, “Seriously”
Some 30 years ago, saxophonist Ralph Carney joined offbeat Akron, Ohio punk rockers Tin Huey who played the same underground clubs as Northeast Ohio acts such as Rocket from the Tombs and the Numbers Band before garnering national accalaim. After issuing 1979’s Contents Dislodged Through Shipment through Warner Bros. Records, the band prematurely called it quits in the early ’80s. Since that time, Carney moved first to NYC, where he hooked up with Tom Waits. He then ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area where he now lives and continues to do session work when he’s not devoted all his time to the Serious Jass Project, an act that plays what Carney calls “trad jazz.” He’s also the impetus behind the Cottontails, another “trad jazz” outfit fronted by Karina Denike (formerly of the ska outfit Dancehall Crashers). Carney issued his latest album, Seriously, under the Jass Project moniker. Last week we called Carney, who also confessed he has a project in the works with his nephew Patrick, who plays drums in the Black Keys.
I know you live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Are you in the city itself?
Yeah, it’s not downtown but it’s the city. I lived in the East Bay area for about five years and have been in Northern California since 1989.
How different is it than Northeast Ohio?
A series or a misfortunate series of events got me out here. I moved out of Akron in 1979 and went to upstate New York first. That was after Tin Huey broke up and got dropped by Warner Bros. From there, I ended up moving to New York because it was hard to get work in upstate New York, though it was very pretty up there. I ended up in Brooklyn for about eight years. Then, my first wife and I went back to Ohio stupidly. That was at the time when I was doing some work with Tom Waits, and I did some scoring for a kids show on HBO. I was kind of naïve, and I couldn’t take New York anymore because it was too crazy. I thought I could do the same thing in Ohio now that I’ve made it. Boy, that was a wrong move. We moved to Ohio and all the work dried up and my wife couldn’t get a job. That was one of the most depressing times in my life. Nothing against Akron, it was just really hard to do what I do there. After nine months of that, our old friend, who was one of the first people to leave New York, left New York and moved back to Oakland and she had been working and doing some screenplay work for one of Francis Ford Coppola’s sons who had been doing some b-movie work out here. She said, “You guys should move out here because it’s happening.” I had never thought of moving to California but I had been out there on tour and I liked it. I was like, “Okay. Let’s try it.” We got out here two weeks before the giant earthquake, so that was pretty exciting. At that point, we didn’t have the money to leave. I stuck it out and I’m glad I did.
Have you found the music scene there to be inspiring?
Yeah. It ain’t New York or L.A. as far as the business stuff goes. The thing about the Bay Area is you can create music better than if you’re not stressed out all the time. Don’t get me wrong. Aggressive New York music – whether it’s punk rock, avant-garde or jazz – is amazing stuff. But the price is that you have to live in New York all the time. In fact, a good friend of mine Steve Bernstein, who has a group called Sex Mob, said, “New York is business, baby, but when I go to the Bay Area, I just think music.” The ironic thing is that since we’ve moved out here, I play a lot more. There not big gigs but they’re gigs related to the record, swing tunes and trad jazz. I love that stuff, and I get paid to play it. I do that as well as my wacky stuff. I think here people are more easy-going. It’s kind of like Ohio, so I feel I have the best of both worlds.
So what’s the status of Tin Huey?
We stopped doing stuff in 1984 and there was an attempt to keep it going then. That was post-record deal and I think they were trying to create stuff that was a little too radio friendly. It’s good stuff but it just didn’t have any edge. People then went there own ways. In 2002, I wanted to go back and play with some of the guys. We wanted to do a reunion of the Warner Bros. band with Chris [Butler] and Mark Price. We had a brief revival in 2003 and recorded stuff we never put out. We played New York and we we played Akron and it was really cool. Sadly, the next year, the bass player Mark Price was diagnosed with cancer so we did some final shows and our last real show with him was in 2006. Since then, it’s been hard but we’ve done some things. Two weeks ago, I was back and we did some stuff in Highland Square. We’re sort of easing back into doing some Tin Huey stuff. I live here and Chris lives in New York. It’s not dead, though sad to say Mark is. I think that came out wrong. He would have appreciated the humor, I’m sure.
I thought there was a reissue that came out recently?
It’s not really a reissue but stuff that wasnever released in the first place. It’s cool stuff that we thought would be our second record on Warner Bros. and there’s some stuff from before we got signed that we recorded and never put out. And there’s some live stuff and that’s how I got the deal with Smog Veil for my record. Their PR people did the Tin Huey record. The PR person from Fly PR said you I should send my record to Smog Veil. I was going to release it myself but I sent it to Frank over at Smog Veil and I told him it was old jazz and not punk rock like he usually puts out. But he liked it. He literally said, “I’ll put it out.” I was very happy to be on Smog Veil because they’re a cool label.
I like Seriously. It sounds like you are just having a good time playing those tunes.
Yeah. I mean, it was still work. A lot of the stuff I did in my home studio and was overdubbing horns. I went in to the studio with the rhythm section on three separate days and then I added a bunch of stuff later at my house. We had fun people to work with. I haven’t brought this band out to Ohio yet but I’d really like to.
Do you play out with those guys in the band on a regular basis?
Yeah, we have a once a month music gig and then we do weddings. It’s the Cottontails and not the Serious Jass Project but it’s pretty much the same band along with the singer Karina Denike, who sings on one and a half tunes on the record. With the Cottontails, the focus is on her vocals, but I always use the same band. I just wanted to do a project of tunes that I like that it seems like a lot of people don’t know. On this album, there are a few more standards like “Linger Awhile” and “You Took Advantage of Me.” The first album was all obscure stuff that only wackos know about.
You think of yourself more as a jazz musician than a punk musician?
Yeah, I would say so. I like to play with a rock band sometimes, but as I get older, it’s just too loud. I know guys who play jazz with a capital J who would never play with any rock band. I think genres get blurry and my generation is the whole post-everything. I know guys who are into noise rock and avant-garde and a lot of different things and that’s me. I was into a lot of different things. This is a side of me that’s a little more melodic, even though the last track, “Echoes of Chloe,” gets a little crazy. On the last record, I included a freak out, too. I don’t know, I’m trying to confuse people, I guess.
It seems like that’s the Akron thing to do – messing with people.
I know. I can’t get it out of my bones.