Posted October 21, 2014 by Jeff in CLE

Chris Allen and the Cabin in the Woods

Chris Allen
Chris Allen

For years, singer-songwriter Chris Allen led Rosavelt, a Cleveland, Ohio-based band that drew equally from Uncle Tupelo and from Tom Petty. The group split up in 2004 after a good long run (it would eventually reunite a few years ago) and Allen, who plays in countless bands (even leading a Pogues tribute act) focused on his solo career. For his latest album, Everything Changes but the Rodeo, he headed to a cabin in upstate New York and recorded with long-time produce Don Dixon (R.E.M., Smithereens). The result starts with a few somber ballads before kicking into gear in its second half as Allen evokes the Replacements on the raspy rock “Only One First Love” and adopts a garage rock feel for “Carrington.”

Talk about recording the album.
We started in January. Last year, I worked on Austin Walkin’ Cane’s blues record and then we started writing my record. Austin has a credit on almost everything on it. The only older song is “Dead Letters” and [bassist] Tom [Prebish] and I wrote that about five years ago. Austin first got involved on my Acetate record. He’s a great sounding board. We love getting together and blocking everything out. The cabin was in upstate New York. I know it sounds so nauseously alt-country to say that. I wanted to get out of town. Cell phones and computers didn’t work up there. You can get a lot more done when people can’t check their email.

How did you and Don Dixon first meet?
I wanted him to mix Rosavelt’s second record. I knew he knew about us. I called him and he said he didn’t want to mix something he didn’t record. I thought he was blowing us off, but he mixes as he records. He’s organized in ways that make sense to me now. We were on the verge of breaking up and we were a three-piece and opened for him at a gig in Akron. He came up after and said he wanted to magnetize us in the studio. We did a four-song demo and he helped get a label involved. It was distributed through Sony, which was great. We did that record and then every record since.

Is there a theme running through the songs?
I don’t know. I started the album and my friend Sean had died. I can’t say that that didn’t affect things a little bit. Yeah, it was present when I was writing. Those things are hard to understand. It’s tough to talk about.

With every record, you see where you’re at. It’s a real stream-of-consciousness thing.

What does Everything Changes but the Rodeo mean?
The husband of my dad’s cousin had built the cabin where we recorded. He loved dime store cowboy novels. When we got done, I opened this one book up and it was in the description of the novel. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I saw it in big, bold letters. It goes against my feeling about getting jammed up in the whole alt-country movement. The title was going to be that or “Summer Never Came.” I thought the Rodeo title was better. I hadn’t been up there in years and if it had rained, we might not have ever recorded. I recorded my parts on the patio, looking through the window at the band. We did the whole thing live.

What do you have against alt-country?
To me, so much of it sounds like bad country music. There’s a certain phony genuineness. I’ve never related to it.

The album’s second half seems more up-tempo. Is that the case?
We had a good amount of songs. I had a rock version of “Summer Never Came.” I had a couple of pop songs. Once we recorded “Summer Never Came,” it tipped the scales so there were two sides. Don wanted to front-end load it with slower things. We knew there were be two sides to it because it would be printed on vinyl. I was nervous about it because there’s still this 17-year-old me who wants to rock out. There’s a singer-songwriter element to it. “Summer Never Came” is the coolest thing we ever recorded. Don put the whole thing on in that order and couldn’t argue with it.

Did something in particular inspire “You Gotta Run”?
That was the first song we wrote. I write a journal for my daughter about what’s going on while she’s alive. It was late-night lullaby fatherly advice—don’t ever get trapped by your surroundings.

What made you decide to put “Carrington” on the album?
That was the one song of [Sean Kilbane’s] that I liked the most. His version is a little slower. He did a great version with his band the Tadpoles. I didn’t listen to it before recording. To me, that’s the way Sean plays rhythm guitar. We did one take and that was it. I think he would have liked it.

Tell me about “Only One First Love.”
We did that one two or three times in a row and by the last take, we just had to nail it. It’s one of my favorites on the record. Kevin Grasha from Rosavelt helped me finish that. A week before we recorded, I didn’t have any lyrics. I had the title for months. I didn’t want it to be a story about some girl. I had a different set of shit lyrics. We stayed up one night after a gig and bashed it out in 30 minutes. If Rosavelt had made a record this year, that would have been on it. Kevin wrote the guitar riff for it. We added some overdubs but most of the stuff was so stripped down because any time we tried to add something, it didn’t sound right. The album was rejecting everything that didn’t happen at the cabin. Everything was done in the three days we were there. My bandmates are such good players. That’s what made it all possible.

What it’s like to make a living as a musician in the 21st century?
Since the beginning of 2000s, I left my day job and haven’t had one since. It’s great. It’s a lot of work. I set up my own company and there are a lot of long hours and there’s never a day off unless you want to have an unpaid one. Mondays are my Saturday nights. I like living on a different schedule than the rest of the world. I do my shopping on Mondays. We play a lot of dates but if I get fed up with it, I think about the fact that I get to play guitar for living and I’m grateful for that. I do my taxes and when I turn them in, I feel lucky to have made it through another year. Right now I do a lot of acoustic dates but I bought my first new electric guitar in ten years. Next year will be the year of rock.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]