Slide on Over with Steve Azar – The Interview
Most country music fans recognize Steve Azar most for his 2002 hit “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘Til Monday),” or for the music video he filmed for his song “Waitin’ on Joe,” a video that starred the legendary Morgan Freeman. But the Greenville, Mississippi, native son is a lot like that big river that moved slowly in his backyard. The river might look like it is sliding along the same each year, but each day it changes it’s course slightly, charting a new way with each wave and ripple.
For Azar, that means adopting more of the sounds and songwriting styles that influenced the music of his youth. 2008’s Indianola, his album after Waitin’ On Joe, had a decidedly more Americana edge to it than any of his previous work. And while there weren’t any big country radio hits like those that came from the previous album, Indianola was received with a bevy critical acclaim. Released this week, Slide On Over Here, sees a big influx of blues into Azar’s musical stylings while never fully leaving the genre that put him on the map.
“I’m from the Mississippi Delta. I can’t help it,” he says. “Blues does exactly what country music does: It makes you feel good about the pains you’re going through.”
The 9513 had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Azar as he prepared the launch of his brand new album.
KEN MORTON, JR: So how does a former Delta State College pre-med major with an emphasis on chemistry become a musician? Those seem like opposite sides of the brain to me.
Steve Azar: [Laughter] If you were in school with me and saw what my teachers thought about that, you would realize that it was just really a mistake. I’ve got a brother who is just a great surgeon. Actually, he’s the Memphis Grizzlies’ orthopedic surgeon–he operated on Pau Gasol, who is now on the Lakers, before they won their championship. I open USA Today and here and there he’s being quoted talking about this or that. Okay, here’s a long story short. Growing up, I didn’t know how even to think about what I’m doing now. I didn’t think anyone could really do this. When I went to college, I just said, “I guess I’ll do that.” It never really was a lot of thought put into it. Unfortunately, my grades showed it. One of my old teachers at Delta State said after he graded my test, “I see you’re nothing like your brother.” So it didn’t work out. And it was really sort of a non-thinking thing. After about three years of that, I finally figured out that if I’m going to get out of here, I need to change my nature.
KMJ: You can play a guitar lick a lot better than your brother, right?
SA: That’s exactly right. I hope that I play guitar licks as well as he operates. But I don’t think I’m even there yet.
KMJ: How is Slide On Over Here different from Indianola or Waitin’ On Joe?
SA: On Waitin’ On Joe, I was involved in a lot of the recording but I didn’t spend much time playing on the record. I didn’t know how to make a record at that point. Indianola sort of became an accident. I learned how to record my own stuff and learned how to play a whole bunch of crazy instruments. I had been playing them, but it was the first time I was playing them on a record. So, Indianola sort of bared it all in sort of a raw form for me. I think I was a little more prepared for this one for the knowledge of recording and knowing you can get a little nuts with it. Just grab your kids toys and use them if it sounds good on the record. I just learned a lot. Slide On Over Here is different from all of them because the first big tour of my life came after the last album. It didn’t come with a national act after my first couple of big hits. It came a couple years ago with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I spent 46 glorious nights with him and his band. It really molded this record. I was really inspired by his audience and by him. It really set the tone for not only the first single, “Moo La Moo,” but for pulling an older song and pulling it in. And also for the whole album being written that way.
KMJ: On Indianola, you didn’t have any big country music radio successes like “I Don’t Have To Be Me (Til’ Monday)” or the title track from Waitin’ On Joe but it was very warmly embraced by the Americana format. After your Bob Seger comment, where do you fit across genres?
SA: I’m a little bit of a mess, aren’t I? I think growing up the way I did, I was a bit country, a bit rock, a bit folk and a lot of blues. Generations way back in the Mississippi Delta, my mom actually grew up on Highway 61. It’s interesting. It’s just taken me a long time to figure out how all of that meshes now. I think with Slide On Over Here, I didn’t think it was going to be called that because it had a lot of slide on the record. It wasn’t even a thought until somebody said something. I went, “What?” The truth is, with Indianola, I was still being influenced by the likes of Radney Foster, the likes of Walt Wilkins. It was just really being influenced by being in the room with them. I think with this record, James Townsend and I spent a lot of time together. I went back to my roots with writing and some of the guys I like to write with. At the end of the day, I think this is more me than any record I’ve ever done. It sounds like us live. There’s just no question about that. Now I’m hearing people say “you sound just like your records.” I used to not hear that a lot back in the Waitin’ On Joe days.
Now, if you’re playing live enough, you kind of find your way again. I think that’s the difference. I still think there were some mainstream hits on that record (Indianola) but we leased the record to another label and it was just a mess. I seem to make the same kind of mistakes like six times. But at the end of the day, you have to a real team and real support behind it. And we have that now. I really set my sight on making an honest record. That’s all I said on this record. I’m hoping we did that. I’m sure that when the album comes out, we’re going to see some blues station play it, some Americana stations play it, rock stations play it and more. It’s just going to happen because the Bob Seger tour just opened the flood gates for me. But at the end of the day, I love my genre. I think I fit great. With me, I’m just a little mutt. So I have to deal with that. If I’m going to be honest with myself musically, it’s going to have to be that.
KMJ: I hear you actually wrote the title track to the new album on your iPhone. That’s a songwriting method I haven’t heard of before.
SA: You’d laugh because it’s pretty silly. I told my manager, Tom, at Sanctuary, “None of these songs on this record are going to fly. My kids said if you name the album Sunshine, then they aren’t going to live here anymore. They’re very young, so I don’t know where they were going to go. Maybe they were going to go live in a tent down the ways on our property or something. It was so funny. What am I going to do? Because I don’t want to say, “I’ll find me,” but Tom said to find a line in a song that you love or that you wrote and name it that. So Slide On Over Here jumped out at me after about a week and I said, “That’s it!” It was in the song “Hard Road.” I didn’t’ want it to be that tough sound or negative sound in there. I wanted to draw people to those songs on the record but it wasn’t the thing to do. One night at about two in the morning, I was off the road for a couple of days and my wife was about 72 feet to the left of me and hanging off the edge of the bed and all I could think about was that I should say “Slide On Over Here” [Laughter]. Of course I didn’t! I went under the covers and I said, “Don’t do it, don’t do it!” And I wrote this verse about growing up and you’ve got your car and you’ve got your girl and it is the first time your girl ever slid over and the first time you ever thought it. I put it as a bonus track. I was on my iPhone, typing it up and of course the next morning, it looked like gibberish because those cell phones have a mind of their own sometimes. About noon that day, it was recorded and I sent it over to my buddy Logan who was mixing the record and it was sent to mastering.
KMJ: You penned close to 80 songs for the new album, how do you go about narrowing that down?
SA: It was 80 brand new songs for Indianola and then 45 more new songs for Slide On Over Here and I still would go back and pull out older songs, like “Moo La Moo” was an older song. I had wanted to put 18 songs on this record and my manager and marketing at my record label both said you can’t put that many songs on this record. Turns out it was better because if I had done that, [the songs] wouldn’t have made sense. The 13 that are on there, plus the bonus track, totally fit to me and there didn’t need to be another song on there. For this album, it makes the most sense. It is still a lot of songs by the way. I love to write and I am always writing. It just happens from writing 45 songs a year–you’ve got choices.
KMJ: Your first single off this album, “Moo La Moo,” just entered the country charts but the video and dance that came with it certainly are causing a stir. Who came up and what’s the background on the dance?
SA: Gary Valentine from King of Queens. Everyone knows him as Danny. We became great friends about 3 ½–4 years ago at the Hootie and the Blowfish Monday after the Masters Charity event. I was on the bus and GV (as I call him) walks in and I hadn’t met him yet and he was goofin’ off while I’m singing. In fact, he texted me just a second ago. I spend time in LA with him now and we go to some stuff together. About ten times a year at these benefits and charity events and it is just a cool little gel–we feel comfortable. We’ve talked about doing a two man show where you take everybody on every emotion in an hour and a half and we’ve been messing with that idea. I finally said, “GV, why don’t you create a dance?” When GV has music going, he is very physical with his comedy and he is a soulful guy. He is a deeper comedian. It’s not just meant to be funny, there’s something else hooked to it that is very attracted–it is heartfelt. He is a great actor and everything, but when music is going, he is double as good. He is very into the music with what he does.
I said, “Why don’t you create a dance?” and he said, “I can do it.” So it happened in about two seconds. It’s like writing a song or a guitar lick. None on this stuff on Slide on Over Here was over-thought. You know, I’m not smart enough to over-think anything is the way I look at it, but it is sort of like what happens at that moment. Sometimes in lyrics you have to think about where you’re going, but that is the most thinking you do. Especially when it comes to the physical part of it, the guitar playing, or parts on the records. In GV’s case–you can team up with it and that is all your dance clubs. It is really catching on everywhere we go and the only way I can explain it, it is a little chaotic and it looks like if there was ever a good virus that you could spread, it would be the “Moo La Moo” because it just spreads on the dance floor. Once people see somebody doing it, it just spreads to the point where we’ve seen a couple of hundred people doing it and it is early–the video just came out.
It’s being worked to all the dance clubs across the country and I think that is making a big difference as well. If we are going to go this way with this song, I want people to have an extra reason to smile. I want people to see what I see with GV on the road at these events, the feeling that I have when he is on stage. It is a different deal for me and I wanted to show that to the world if we could. And he did a great job! And obviously Paula Trickey, who is on the O.C., I kidnapped her as well. We were all at the BMW charity event and I kidnapped them and drove them here to shoot the video and she added the “ooh la la” to the “Moo La Moo.” Paula was on the O.C. for a number of years.
KMJ: Tell me about the song on the album called “Take Your Time (Ryan’s Song).”
SA: I love it. I was in Arkansas with my sister-in-law and brother-in-law and we were hanging out and their daughter was 15 at the time and they had her very young when they were in college and she just walked up and I said, “Oh my gosh, she’s not a little girl anymore.” She was decked out. This guy pulls up and she jumps in the car and I go, “Whoa. What just happened?” The transition from 13 to 15 is pretty amazing, especially when you haven’t seen her in awhile. Her name is Ryan and she just got a full ride as a writer to Loyola in New Orleans (she is a fantastic writer). So, I guess that was a couple of years ago and now she is 17 and it is interesting. I just thought she was in a hurry to grow up and I just started thinking about all the visions of me growing up and what I did and how much of a hurry I was in, so it incorporated it in with that feeling that I got when she walked out and just watching how fast she was in a hurry to grow up and came on in and caught James House (my buddy) and said, “Let’s write this.” And that is sort of how it happened.
KMJ: What is country music to Steve Azar?
SA: Maybe the question might be, what is Steve Azar to country music? I know I am a bit of a mutt and I keep saying it. It matters to me, because where I grew up it is the closest genre to blues. The way you write songs, it is about real life and real stuff and every event matters. I was drawn to this town when I was a kid and I still think that as a songwriter, it is about being around all these great songwriters and gravitating toward them. To me it has been the biggest jump of my life. If I wouldn’t have been here, there is just no way I would be where I am today as far as a writer and as comfortable as I am writing about things and as open I am. You learn to truly be open. I credit this town for that. It isn’t just country music, it is this town and being on the road (which I run from now, because I itch when I am over there.) It is really about Nashville and how I was attracted to certain writers who helped mold me into who I am today.
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