Luella & The Sun Benefit Preview: The Luella & The Sun Interview

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We recently sat down with Luella (aka Melissa Mathes) and guitarist Joe McMahan of Luella & The Sun to discuss how appreciative they are of the support for their benefit concert, what happened with the fire, and what we can expect from them in the very near future.

For those of you still not in the know, the home and studio of Joe McMahan and Luella burned on June 8, 2013. Luckily no one was hurt in the blaze, but years and years of collected gear and studio equipment was forever lost. However, in the awesomeness that is Nashville, a community was formed around the loss, and a benefit was arranged for tonight, August 2nd, at Mercy Lounge. Performers for the night include Justin Townes Earle, Altered Statesmen, DUGAS, Los Colognes, Webb Wilder, James Wallace & The Naked Light, and, of course, Luella & The Sun. We recently announced a whole bevy of beverages donated by Blue Moon and Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, some great raffle items, and even a donated guitar by Justin Townes Earle that will be auctioned off. This event is most likely going to be sold out, so, you should go ahead and grab your tickets right here.

No Country: How are you guys dealing with everything since the fire?

Joe McMahan: We’re surviving, but are ready to be home. One of the strangest parts of this for me, personally, is accepting all the generosity of all of our friends and fans that have reached out during this time. It’s hard to know what to do with that, ya know. The first few times, you try to give it back and fight it, but then you realize that’s not really cool either. People want to help, so now all I can do is say thank you and thank you and thank you again. It’s mind blowing.

NC: It shows the awesomeness of Nashville, and the way that people are trying to support each other and help each other…

JM: It sure does. When you are in sort of the everyday, dog-eat-dog world of trying to stay afloat and get gigs and everything, we all run into each other and shake hands and go on our way, but then something like this happens, and people go out of their way to be nice and supportive. It restores and renews my belief in how cool people are.

NC: Definitely. So, tell us about what happened.

JM: Well, I had been working on a record for a friend all week, and I had just finished. I handed him the mixes, and ran out to get some food before rehearsal with my other band, Altered Statesmen. When I returned there were fire trucks blocking traffic on my street. Now, my street has a lot of halfway houses and whatnot, so I’m thinking this is just some more halfway house shenanigans. Then it started to dawn on me that, they are in my yard, and I can see the firehose coming out of my house. At that moment, everything goes surreal and your brain starts spinning. I just started running through people’s yards to get to my house. When I get there I see my 1967 Fender Coronado that was laying in the yard all fucked up, and there’s a rack of old Ampex tape machine electronics on the porch, and firemen are all in the house, and the neighbors are all in their yards, it was just so surreal. The firemen wouldn’t let me come in, so I just went out into the yard and started spinning around like Thelonious Monk a few times. They finally get it cleaned up enough for me to go inside, and it is all black, melted knobs and buttons, and ruined recording equipment. At first, you mourn all of this stuff and all the work it took to get it there, and then – at least in my brain – I’m like, “Fuck it.”

NC: That’s the thing though… That’s just stuff. You have to remember the important thing is that you guys are all okay. No one was hurt.

Luella: Yeah. We are just so glad we weren’t there sleeping when it happened. That would have been terrifying. Luckily a neighbor saw it and called the fire department.

JM: Right, and he kicked in the panels of our front and back doors yelling “Fire!” to make sure no one was in the house. We were also lucky because, when he called the fire department, the truck was driving on Gallatin Road going to get serviced, and the fireman later told me they were at my house within one minute of getting the call.

NC: Wow, that is very lucky, you could have lost so much more of the house.

Luella Exactly, we were really fortunate that it was all contained to that one room, but we have also learned about smoke and how it gets into everything. You would think that the clothes you had in a drawer on the other side of the house might have been protected some, but you pull your hand out of the drawer and it is black.

JM: Yeah. We also learned that smoke carries a lot of moisture with it, so we also lost all of our appliances, pots and pans, pretty much anything metal, because it rusted in the smoke.

NC: Wow, you wouldn’t think that. So, it was a power strip, right? Was it defective, or was it really old?

JM: Yeah, it was a power strip. You know in reality it was probably 7 to 10 years old. I’m not sure that it was defective, but one of the fire investigators even told me that those strips have an expiration date. You are supposed to change them out every couple of years.

NC: Wow! I can’t even tell you how old my power strips are. I’ve probably been toting those things from house to house since the early 90’s. I want to go home and change them out right now. So, you had insurance, how did that work out for you?

JM: Yeah, I was lucky, and I’ve wanting to get this out there for all of the musician friends that I have in town. When I bought the house, I had to get homeowners insurance. I told the insurance agent all about my guitars and equipment and my job as a musician. He told me that it would probably all be covered under personal homeowners, but the more I talked to folks, I started to get nervous. So, about a year later, I took out a policy with a company called Clarion which insures musical equipment, and now, with the explosion of personal home recording studios, they cover recording equipment too. In hindsight, that is one of the smartest things that I have ever done. I wish I had been more thorough in documenting everything in the studio, but, of course, I was thinking of it as something that would just give me some help in the event of a major event. But, like a homeowners policy they tend to just estimate your belongings, factor in depreciation, and cut you a check…

NC:… but, wait, guitars tend to get more expensive with age, right?

JM: Well, we are about to learn how the insurance industry views that, but the Clarion policy tries to replace the models of equipment that you lost. I was fairly thorough with guitars and recording equipment, but those are the big items… it doesn’t include the thousands of dollars of miscellaneous headphones and cabling and all of that kind of stuff that you build up over the years. And, of course, a lot of the stuff that I have, like a lot of musicians, has taken years to find and build and piece together. There isn’t an insurance policy that is going to be able to put it all back together, but I’m glad that there is some help out there.

Luella: I just hope it can get some of the soul back. That studio just had so much soul to it, and so many people have recorded their records over there. Kevin Gordon, Justin Townes Earle, Pat Sweany, Altered Statesmen, Mike Farris…

JM: Funny story about Justin. He cane over to record some demos a while back, and he was telling about how he had sponsored some kid in my home when it used to be a halfway house years before.

NC: East Nashville is a small world. But, I can imagine it will take a while to replace a lot of the stuff, but surely the soul is still in there somewhere. And, I’m definitely glad to hear that you guys have some help, because it could be even more devastating. So, you guys curated the lineup for this event, what’s your relationship to all the bands?

JM: Well, as the idea of the benefit was presented to us, we immediately just started thinking about the people that we play with a lot. [Luella bassist] Adam [Bedarnik] and [drummer] John [Radford] suggested Justin, obviously (Adam and John are currently touring with Justin Townes Earle). Pat Sweany, Kenny Vaughn, and Kevin Gordon were high on the list, but they were all out of town. Webb Wilder and I are good friends, and he’s done a record in the studio. DUGAS and I played, when they were in their old band, in some festival gigs, and we just really hit it off musically. Then you start thinking of guys like James Wallace who will bring a whole different vibe to it, and we just took a serious liking to Los Colognes because they are cool guys who play some really cool music. Some of The Clones Colognes were actually on the last record that was recorded in the studio before the fire for Kenny Vaughn.

NC: Speaking of records, what’s the story with your record now? You guys made a pretty big splash with that 2-song 10-inch. And, we know that you guys actually originally had this weekend blocked out to record the full-length, but the fire has put a damper on that for now. I know that we all want to hear more Luella, so when is that going to happen?

JM: We’ve had the songs for a while, and we were kind of arguing about where we should record it. I wanted to get out of this studio, but everyone else thought my studio was where it would be best, like we would lose it if we left. We did go look at Ben Folds’ Studio to make a record, and we were all pretty fascinated with the space…

NC: That’s a pretty big space though, would you guys want that after coming out of the studio in your house?

JM: Yeah, I think so. Adam has a lot of experience in there, and I’ve worked in there a few times recently. But, the idea of us going into that huge space and then setting up right next to each other with a PA for Luella to sing out into the room to utilize the space will, we hope, be really cool. So, we’ve booked the first week in September there, which is probably where most any money we make from the benefit will go.

NC: Cool! So, do you have any timeframe for a release?

JM: We are shooting for March 2014, and coinciding that with a lot of spring and summer tours to follow.

NC: … and right in time for another SXSW run. You guys got a lot of press out of that. Tell me a bit about how that experience was for you.

Luella We had seven shows in four days. It was amazing, and we are really thankful for our manager putting the word out to get people out to see us so we could maximize the experience. I was just worried about my vocal cords. That’s definitely the most that I have done in a row, and I was worried. I know that my voice builds stamina with the more shows that I play, so that helped me through it. It’s like exercise: when you are doing it everyday it doesn’t hurt so bad, but when you take periods of time off, it’s a lot harder. I did meet with Laura Donohue, who is a great vocal instructor, before, to get some pointers on how to prepare. And, it just worked out so well.

NC: I’d say so. Isn’t that what is so crazy about SXSW? You don’t really have the feeling that you are playing true gigs. It’s not like everyone is dialed into your performance, per se, and then, all of the sudden, Ann Powers highlights you guys out of 3,000 some-odd bands. I mean, you guys never met her or anything, right?

JM: No man, that’s what was so crazy. She tweeted about us when she was getting on a plane. We were getting on a plane too. We didn’t even know, at that time, which show she had seen.

Luella That was a really special time for us as a band too, because we went there not knowing what it was going to be like for us, especially with so many other bands there and we are so kinda new and still growing. So, that experience for us was about growing as a family. We all love each other so much

NC: … and that’s why all the bands clamor to play SXSW. You never know what is going to come out of it.

Luella: Right. We all went down there knowing it was going to cost us some money to do it, and we shared a hotel room. Maybe it was someone snoring, or someone wanting to do this, or wanting to do that, but I know that there is going to be a day when we all look back on it and miss this time together. We were working at it everyday, and treated it like a job. SXSW, to me, is when we became a band together, and when we grew together.

NC: So, how did that play out for you guys after SXSW? Did you guys see more opportunities? Did you get to book more shows?

Luella: Oh, yeah. We got to use Ann Powers as a reference…

JM: …yeah, but really for us, it was some validation. What we were doing wasn’t just cool to us, but others kind of believed in it too.

NC: You guys have been on the road a bit since then. Have there been any gigs that have stood out to you guys?

JM: Chicago, St. Louis… Minneapolis was really cool, because we didn’t expect anyone to come out to see us on a Monday night in Minneapolis… and we’re ok with that. We show up and there are like 30 or 40 “fans” up in Minneapolis. These guys knew us, and were up front checking out our amps and gear and stuff… I mean, then you go to somewhere like Iowa City, and there are like 6 people that knew us….

Luella: …but of those six people, they all came and bought something from us after the show, and, one of the guys, was like our biggest fan. I mean, who would have thought. It’s crazy. And then there was this show in Atlanta, and we met a couple who wanted to get married to one of our songs, “Universe Of My Heart”. That was an honor and a little surreal. And, of course, when you are on the road, and you see someone in the crowd singing along, it just means so much. It’s like you do what you do, and, if it is intended to reach people, then it will.

NC: Well said. So, tell me about your new single and especially that powerful new video that we just premiered?

Luella: We wanted to do something in homage to the space that we all spent some much time in together. So, we have a new song called “I Got Soul” which we wanted to shoot a video for in that space before they came in to gut everything. It kind of means so much too, because this was Joe’s home and his work space. Not to mention, there was so much magic in that house in the way that Joe built it. I mean it will still be there in the future, but it will be a new era that is brought to life. So, documenting the video in that setting was especially beautiful.

NC: It was a pretty amazing video. So, let’s wrap this up with what does the benefit mean to you guys?

JM: I’m really looking forward to the benefit in a comraderie sort of way. Everyone that comes out to the event is a friend, and someone I want to meet. Whether it be musician or fan, I want to thank everyone!

Luella: Yeah, thank you so much Nashville!

NC: Thanks guys! We’re really looking forward to a fun night with you!

There are limited tickets still available. If you can’t make it, but still want to help out there is a way to contribute here. If you still have any doubts, check out that new video for “I Got Soul” below. Right? See you tonight!

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