While record execs and shareholders wring their collective hands over the harrowing times facing the record business, creative men and women are still bent over guitars and laboring over lyrics on any piece of paper available. Because the truth is, without musicians, there is no business. So brave souls trudge on, oblivious to the hardships felt by previous participants. The bad times don’t seem to have reached Turkey Heaven Mountain, a tiny section of Ranburne, Alabama. Right off exit 205 before you hit the Georgia state line, Willem Maker is crafting bluesy originals hued together with raspy vocals and stunning instrumentation. His first release, “Stars Fell On”, was a fantastic first effort, and sold very well. It also whetted appetites for a new release. On March 17, fans had no longer had to wait. “New Moon Hand” documents growth for Maker, and promises to build on the foundation set forth by his first effort.
I spoke with Willem after he was getting over a case of the flu serious enough to pull him off the road on a tour with Clutch.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
A. I grew up in the West Georgia area. My grandfather had a farm there, and I spent a lot of time there. Carrollton was where I grew up and went to school, at Central High. My parents were accountants. My dad was a drag racer. My grandfather was a moonshiner. We’re very colorful people from the country, and that rubbed off on me. It made me want to write, and I never stopped. That served me through high school, where I did pretty well. I never went to college, because music was the only thing that interested me. I loved to read, and still do. I just don’t do it enough. When I was in school, I was on the swim team, starting at age seven.
Q. Where your parents involved with your early musical foundation?
A. There was a piano around, but they weren’t big on pushing us to play. It started when my brother got a guitar, so I got a bass. He left for college, and I started a band there in Carrollton. Sloane, my brother, was still writing songs, and he did a demo that found its way into Jay Farrar’s hands. He called us, and ended up coming down to cut a single with us in 1994. We also did some things with Ryan Adams before he went on his solo career. He had a short-lived band called Freight Whaler. He was looking for musicians, but I wasn’t well at that time. So Sloan and a friend went up there, and played a few shows before it fell apart. That was right before he put out “Heartbreaker”.
Q. You said you weren’t well. What was wrong?
A. I got heavy metal poisoning. Our house in Carrollton had copper slag all around it. I lived in the basement, and was exposed to it because the local refinery had dumped it around the area.
Q. Any lingering effects from that?
A. No, we moved in 1996. But it did take a long time before I felt like myself.
Q. How did you get signed to a record deal?
A. I just decided that I was going to get serious about it. I printed them myself, and sold them online. Regardless of sales, I just wanted something I could be proud of. I didn’t know what the odds were that a label would pick it up, but I’m sure they’re slim. I just really wanted to finish it, and have it look good enough to send to labels. I sent it to Fat Possum, they were one of the ones I really wanted to work with. I’m really proud of my first album, because I played everything on it except for the drums, and also mixed it.
Q. Can you tell me about the new album?
A. We started with demos in September or October of last year. It was great working in a new studio with focused people. Bruce Watson pulled together a great amount of talent for the record. Cedric was an early idea, and he had the time to do it. Bruce is also friends with Jim Dickinson. He was willing to do it. There were three or four weeks left, and I asked Scott Bomar, whose studio we used, if he knew Alvin Youngblood Hart. He did, and so did Bruce. Alvin was keen on doing it, and it happened.
Q. The guys on this album sound like a tight, polished band. But it’s not plastic, or overproduced.
A. That is what we strove for. It was really important that it happened like that.
Q. Can you tell us about a few of your song ideas?
A. With “Black Beach Boogie”, that is about the idea of reaching the beach at the end of a long personal journey. But instead of reaching still waters, there is a detour of sorts. People talk about reaching the water, instead of just going ahead and getting in the boat and getting started. With “Saints Weep Wine”, I had a dream about a statue crying, and it lingered with me. I wrote some of the words, and put them away. I drew the picture of an Asian ruin, and four days, later the tsunami hit. While I was watching it, at one point they showed some footage of the water, and it looked just like what I had drawn on the page. It was almost like I had an awareness of what was going to happen, and that’s why I wrote it. With “Stars Fell On”, there is a guy lives in a mountain in China. Most of his work was written on rock, and on the walls of the monastery. I was inspired by a book called “Black Elk Speaks”. It involves a Native American shaman explaining about the four corners. I tied the two books together and crafted a song.
Q. What are your plans for 2009?
A. I’m really concentrating on South By Southwest. After that, in May, we’re going out on a North American tour with Bob Log. It will be my first time touring the entire country.