Paul Cebar: Indier than thou
Singer-songwriter icon Nick Lowe has this to say about fellow singer-songwriter Paul Cebar: “[He’s] the real thing: a proper soulful cat with the tunes, the chops and the voice to swing this epoch back to its senses.” Cebar’s new album, Fine Rude Thing, features a bit of everything. “You Owe It to You” channels the Philly soul that he loves so much and other tracks on the eclectic album draw from Brazilian, Cuban and African music. His backing band, Tomorrow Sound, is one of the sharpest in the biz and can alternately swing and simmer. Cebar also hosts Way Back Home, a radio show on Milwaukee’s WMSE that allows him to dig into his extensive vinyl collection and pontificate about his various influences. We recently called Cebar at his Milwaukee home to talk about his terrific new album and his incredible history that, oddly enough, doesn’t include any major label horror stories. (Their loss!)
Your music isn’t easy to pigeonhole. How did you come to be so eclectic?
I don’t know. You keep plucking away and you keep following your nose and try to find out where that came from. I started out at a time when radio was pretty eclectic and I internalized that. Terry Adams from NRBQ often calls it “omni-pop,” and I like that formulation. I think that is what the deal is. You hope the playing of your band unifies things in some way, shape or form.
The title track is such a great romp. What inspired it?
I had an instrumental that my drummer and I had whipped up. We were calling it “fine rude thing.” I thought, “There are some lyrics in that title.” It was during the lovely Bush era that I started working on it. My records come out years later and I can never truly address political or topical concerns because by the time it’s out, it’s over with. But in that song, there’s a bit of an indication that this was a rebuttal to their abysmal drag. It was as close as I could get to saying, “I’ve had enough.” You want to encourage folks who have their eyes on fire. I was trying to conjure up somebody who was “racing down the alley.”
In what context did Nick Lowe call you “the real thing”?
I have done a number of opening dates for him through the years. I met him a long time ago and he’s a sweet, sweet man. He’s hilarious. A few years ago, I asked him if he had it in him to weigh in on what I meant or what I was about. He was kind enough to come up with that. He’s been a mentor and a real friend. The last record, he actually sang some background vocals on one of the songs. We have an ongoing appreciation of all kinds of arcane R&B and country records.
You started out playing folk music in the ’70s. What was that experience like?
Not all that far from Inside Llewyn Davis, let me tell you. It was the fumes of that stuff. I would go to New York and play Folk City and The Other End and all those places that were part of the scene way back when. People like Dave Von Ronk would come out. It was a heady time. In ‘79 and ‘80 as I was getting out of college, I was entertaining a move to New York to try to make it there. I would have Shel Silverstein show up. I didn’t know it was him. I got into Key West and the guy behind the counter at the record store told me, “Oh, you’re the guy Shel Silverstein told me about.” The tragedy of that is that I never got to meet him. I must have talked to him in the audience but I didn’t know it was him. It was a cool scene. You’d do these open mics and then get a gig every six weeks or so and play for whoever shows up. I got to open for Willie Dixon and Sonny & Brownie. It was a really nice way to cut your teeth.
How’d you end up embracing so much world music?
I went to school in Sarasota but I was blind to that music at that point. I was studying jazz and getting into R&B. It was hard to find Louis Jordan or Buddy Johnson or any records that were ’40s R&B. It became a detective action. I used to comb the record stores trying to find 78s of these guys so I could hear the stuff. New Orleans got me the same time when I was in school. I think the New Orleans sound and all the different sounds of New Orleans led me into different diasporal forms. I saw Cuban musicians in New Orleans. There was a big art festival in Milwaukee and somehow the booking agent was pretty hip—it was the Wild Magnolias from New Orleans. They came as a small group and walked around the grounds. I was about 12 and followed them around all day. I had that song “(My Big Chief has a) Golden Crown” stuck in my head for 20 years. That day Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer, was booked and Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers were booked. It was this early imprinting.
How strange that it was at an arts festival in Milwaukee?
It was at our art museum down on the lake. It has grown increasingly unhip over the years. There was a brief moment there. I missed by one year Bola Sete, the Brazilian guitarist who later has become one of my favorites. It was a great opportunity.
You had two different backing bands in the ’80s. What was that experience like?
What happened there was that I was playing solo and then I had a tenor player and we’d play early R&B stuff. I met Robin Pluer and she became part of that ensemble singing with me. She fell into this band called The R&B Cadets. I was going between New York and Milwaukee and figuring out what I was doing. I think Target had all kinds of cutouts and I happened upon a bunch of stuff that became pretty pivotal like Howard Tate’s record and a bunch of New Orleans stuff that I didn’t own but always heard when I was a kid. I enjoyed the stripped down thing and I try to keep doing that. At that time, it was my chance to get involved with a band and be a guest and come up and sing a few Lee Dorsey B-sides and have a great time. Eventually became part of that band, which was with John Sieger, a great musician out of here, who’s a wonderful singer and player and writer. In that band, I was the guy who would find the obscure B-side or whatever the cover song was that we were going to play. John was writing the original music. During that time, I kept up with the band that I started with Robin and I added an upright bass player and someone like Dan Hicks would be a good touchstone for what we were doing. We were interpreting other music. I started doing calypso music because I had found a few records and was taken with that style. We did that concurrently with the Cadets and that was a Sunday night band. I stated calling it the Milwaukeeans around ’82 or ‘83. But in ‘86, we put one record out on Twin-Tone as the Cadets. John’s side project was called Semi-Twang and that broke up the cadets. Robin and I continued on as the Milwaukeeans.
When did you put together Tomorrow Sound?
About five years ago, I changed the name of the band and wanted to freshen stuff up. I thought we were being taken for granted. I started seeing reviews that would refer to how we were interpreting older music. We had been playing original music for 20 years. I wanted to put the focus on the future. The marketers don’t like you to break brand, but we’re musicians.
What did you try to do differently on Fine Rude Thing?
I think you kind of try to hopefully take steps forward. I think my writing has grown clearer and more concise. Part of that is that the co-writing process has helped. It’s been a nice, surprising development. When you start writing tunes, you figure it’s a pretty private thing you do on your own. There are the giant walls of “it’s not going to be sincere.” If you work with friends you really respect, you write a different kind of song and come up with ideas that are fresher than the ones you might have if you’re carrying them around yourself. It’s been a nice revelatory process. I love Pat MacLaughlin. He’s one of my favorite performers. He stays close to home in Nashville. But he’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on stage. He’s an equally great guy. We’ve taken to hanging out and trying our hand at a bunch of stuff. To write with [Los Lobos’] Cesar Rosas was a real thrill. That happened when he was putting together his solo record and approach me to do some things. We had done a lot of shows together. He suggested I write some lyrics for a groove he had. Chuck Mead is a good friend of my photographer buddy Jim Herrington. I always liked what BR549 has done and what Chuck has done since. The first line of that song “Baby Shake” refers to a woman who used to wander the streets of Lawrence, Kansas where Chuck is from. She would wear blue all the time. Chuck brought her up as somebody who should “shake up the past.” She wore the outfit that she broke up with her boyfriend in. She was trying to show him what he left behind—pretty poignant. Chuck thought we should tell her to “shake it up.”
What’s it like trying to make a livng as a musician in 2014? Is that a struggle for you or do you live in a separate world?
I would like to say it’s a separate world but in a way that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Since we didn’t have the luxury of being on a major label, we were never subject to the horror stories that everyone talks about. But we also failed to benefit from the publicity work that anyone who has been on a label receives. In many ways, I’m “indier than thou.” I’m probably deluded but I think there’s immediacy to the music that could have been marketed. I do love continuing on. We’re driving vans from town to town but I get a big kick out of seeing the country and seeing the people who come out. You hope there are a few around who still want to buy the record or buy the download. Certainly, it’s affected everything. I know the knee-jerk response is that playing live will make up for it. The reality is we have to fight the whole history of cinema every night. People can watch whatever they want and just go down the Alice-in-Wonderland-hole of their phone each evening. I know that for myself I love live music and dancing to live music and I want to foster that for others. I trust there are still folks out there hankering to get out on the floor and get going.
Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates
Milwaukee, Turner Hall
Madison, Harmony Bar
Worthington, OH (Columbus), Natalie’s
Cleveland, Beachland Ballroom
Pittsburgh, Club Café
Baltimore, Creative Alliance
Vienna, VA, The Barns at Wolftrap
Annapolis, Rams Head
NYC, Rockwood Music Hall
New Haven, Café Nine
Sellersville, PA, Sellersville Theatre
Fall River, MA, Narrows Center for the Arts