In support of his new album, break out rocker Welles makes his Twin Cities debut at The 7th Street Entry at 8pm on June 23. Red Trees and White Trashes drops this Friday. Opening for Welles is Grand Courriers. Tickets are available HERE
With a sound that hearkens to Nirvana meets Ty Segall and T Rex, the 23 year old Arkansan has been making waves from Bonaroo to sharing the stage with rock powerhouses the likes of Greta Van Fleet and Rival Sons. Recently he received some serious props from NPR, appearing on their Tiny Desk series. Expect big sounds in The Entry!
Welles took some time to talk with TCM about growing up in the rural South, learning to play guitar and the journey that moved him to Nashville and a legion of new fans. If you are one of those who’s been pining for a bit more unfiltered, guitar driven rock n roll this is a show you won’t want to miss.
Before talking about your new album and musical journey to date let’s talk about where you came from. Ozark, Arkansas is one of those small towns that probably colored a lot of who you are. Seems like small towns have produced more than their fair share of great musicians. Many don’t stay put but that rural upbringing seems to help provide a unique world view. Seems like players from small towns seem to be better at tapping directly into the core.
The rural south has spawned so many long haired, killer guitar players and songwriters that it almost seems a cliché. Some, like Drive By Truckers resisted that kind of labeling for years before embracing it and deciding to do “that Southern thang” on steroids. From where you sit today, do you view yourself as rocker on your own merits or as somehow fitting into a bigger tradition?
I dig the notion of being from some pedagogy of good ole boys–and there’s some truth to it–if only in our rural upbringing, that breeds a specific type of player. I’m not sure if I really fit there, since I’m from the most recent generation. After leaving town, I realized our style of living and outlook was significantly different from those a couple hours away in Fayetteville; for better or worse. I’ve always been pining over British invasion sounds. But I’ll spin some Allman/Skynrd/Uncle Ted; that’s the shit that makes you wanna rip.
Ozark has some interesting native sons and daughters. The great guitarist Roy Buchanon was an Ozark boy. Although he was gone long before you were born does the town still claim him?
Oh yea. He’s a cousin of the Burns family, who I was grown and raised with. I met their son Jacob in ball, their daughter Kara at the library (we fell in love, still are), but at that time, their dad, Danny, was in Baghdad with Charlie Battery running convoy escort missions. I had begun giving guitar lessons to Kara who was a couple grades my senior, but we liked hanging out more and more and playing less and less. We were inseparable. She put the ax up and focused on books. She teaches high school English now. Danny plays blues guitar, his brother Paul David did too until his untimely death in the ’70s. Paul David was the legend, and looming over him even more legendary was Roy Buchanan, Kin and all! When Danny came back, I was a little wary, seeing how he came back from the war and there’s a strange boy always hanging around, but they took me as one of them. (I should’ve known momma Sherri was the boss anyway, and she didn’t mind me around.) We play guitar together every time I come down now–hell it’s all we do.
Your press kit talks about you as a kid pouring over books and records at the public library. As if there was nothing else for a kid to do! That has this kind of outsider, searcher mystique to it. There was also the Welles that schoolmates and teachers knew. Tell us about your early boyhood running mates and what’s your relationship with them now that you’re “living in the big city” and finding success?
I played ball from the 5th grade on through my senior year and I had a lot of buddies on the team. It’s something you don’t think about much when it’s happening, but in retrospect you realize that it’s a once in a lifetime relationship. My buddy Wade and I ran together quite a lot. We would also catch crayfish and play with firecrackers, the whole lot of it. We fished like mad, every day until it was too cold to do so. We still do when we get together. I played in school band too, from fifth through my senior year, so I had my band buddies, some of whom played ball with me, too. I was plugged in within my class, there were about 100 of us so you had to try pretty hard to not know someone. Of course, James and I grew up together, played rock ‘n’ roll together, and eventually lived together in Space Mountain in Fayetteville. Best buds stick together; they don’t think I’m cool. You can’t be cool when everyone saw every awkward stage and colossal eff-up you’ve ever made. Wade still reminds me that he catches crawfish better (he does, sometimes they spook me) and James reminds me of having to tackle me drunk and on fire and put me out at my house in Siloam.
One of the real challenges of being a musician in a small town is the lack of other musicians with whom you can hone your craft as well as playing opportunities. Was that an issue? And, if so how’d you work around it?
We taught ourselves and each other and made our own gigs. We weren’t that great when we were kids but we just wanted it so bad. We’d ask the boss Kevin at Rivertowne Barbecue to let us play in the empty building next to his restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights while people walked inside. No one knew what was going on but they’d look in the window at us! We hijacked the courthouse gazebo a time or two and threw shows for our friends. We played at friends’ birthday parties wherever we could set up. When I was 16 I borrowed a PA from the first Baptist church basement and set up a music festival at Gar Creek and got anybody in the school I knew with an instrument to come and play it. I could go on – it’s always been a mad homemade scramble and I live for it.
Making ends meet these days as a musician is probably harder than it’s ever been given things like streaming services and the sheer number of bands and artists out there in cyber space. Seems like to make it you just have to work your ass off and get people to your shows. As a result, well-meaning people and “adults” like to talk about having a Plan B or “fall back” position. Most don’t understand that you can’t go at it half-assed. It’s all or nothing. Can you talk about that experience and if/when there was a moment when you just decided to go for it?
I wrestled in college over the plan b. No one was telling me I had to have one. All my family wanted to see me graduate though, and so I did. I just hated school a lot, but at the same time I knew anywhere else I went I wouldn’t have had the concentration of people my age trying to be woke and hip, so I didn’t wanna leave. The ‘goin’ for it was moving to Nashville. I was otherwise comfortable in Fayetteville, played shows regularly with decent turn out, lived with my friends, worked at the grocery store and taught at the school of rock. Of course, there was that gnawing ache of knowing I wanted people to know what I was up to, and that AR is overlooked. So I sold most my shit, said goodbye to my lifetime friends and bailed. That was heavy. Within a few months of getting to Nashville, I reckoned I blew it with a DUI. I was lonely and pissing around, feeling sorry for myself and wound up in trouble. But we put a band together, got out of jail and did my probation. After that, I went out and capitalized on the opportunities we were given and here I am now. It’s still a hustle. I work at the coffee shop to make rent when I’m not on tour and when we’re on tour we make peanuts—but goddam this is not something you do for the money. It’s like teaching. You do it partially for you, and most of it for the people. You need them and they need you.
A good friend who’s been a player his whole life once said: “You don’t become a musician because you want to. You do it because you have to.” Does that ring true to you?
That’s the truth.
I was reading that you were living in this Chelsea Hotel type place in Fayetteville when you wrote most of the new album. Any specific events that contributed to any of the songs? Or is it time to Out any of your old friends on crazy stuff that was going down?
Yop. Everything that happened there wrote the songs I wrote while I lived there. I got shingles over there and the doctor gave me codeine which was stupid. Within a few days, I was hooked on it. Then I quit it and wrote ‘Codeine’. The only person I feel it’s fair to ‘out’ is myself though, haha. Life like mine alludes to many instances of wild times, but I prefer to keep those as they are in the tune for now 😉
Who are you band mates these days and how did you come together?
The membership has been pretty fluid in these early days. In Nashville there is a culture of being a hired gun behind an artist leading the group, though as the tours have rolled in, I’ve had the good fortune of keeping a steady group and we’ve grown pretty close. Marshal plays guitar and sings. He’s been in Nashville for 10 years playing in different groups and producing his own music. He is an incredibly precise player and I envy him in that regard. You don’t hear him flub. He just doesn’t. He’s always working on some awesome riff of his own, and often times I get glimpses of them at soundcheck. He’s capable of building a mountain out of riffs, and I’m left playing in my sandbox.
Jordan plays the kit. The kit he built, in fact. He’s from Texas and moved here a couple years ago. He plays and writes with a brilliant group called Nightingale here in Nashville. He also plays drums from microwave mountain on occasion. Jordan has a way – when he sits at the kit – he’s in the driver’s seat. It makes you comfortable. He has the cdl, he knows the road, he’s gonna get you through the set and it’s gonna sound heavy. Davy has been playing bass with us the most lately. He is a singer and a songwriter as well for his own group, Vid Nelson, and I fill in on bass for him sometimes. He has a sixth sense for harmonies and keeps the bass so tight that I look over my shoulder for Paul McCartney every once in a while.
Where would we typically find Welles and what is he doing when he’s not playing music?
I live in pawn and thrift shops. I just love to pilfer through them and find cheap things to tinker with, mostly guitars and other instruments. I love used book stores as well. Here in Nashville we have the Book Attic, Great Escape, and Mckay’s for used media. I used to work at Goodwill, then I was a warehouse worker out in Siloam Springs for the Salvation Army where all I did all day was sort donations. It was the perfect job and I got to work with the fellas in their rehab program, so the conversation was never dull.
Do you or your band have any rituals, either pre-show or post, that are unique or help give you some structure to what you do?
We do one thing before we go on, a little sing-song chant thing: “no butts no boobs
jus four good dudes
it’s gonna be a really good day.”
We made it up driving around in Asheville, NC looking for a place we could all play frisbee. We laughed so hard it just stuck.
Mike Cooley once wrote: “Nashville’s where you go to see if what they say is so.” That town has become ground zero for a lot of music making these days. By the same token, when everybody flocks to Mecca it’s tough to stand out. How’s the move going for you? What do you like best and least?
It’s taken about a year to get settled in with a routine and a few good friends, but overall it’s been very important for me. I needed to leave Arkansas if I really want to go out and play. Now we’re out doing it and I wouldn’t take it back. As far as the scene goes, I just do whatever I would have been doing back home; recording tunes in my room and milling around the pawn shops. The best part is the people, the worst part is being in the city.
Everybody seems to want to point out the Nirvana influence but I suspect that’s a pretty shallow definition. Who else do you really dig and where can you point on your record to your love of his/her style or approach?
My biggest influences are Lennon, Dylan, Bowie, Bolan, Cohen, and the Kinks. I really admire and enjoy Shannon Hoon’s work too. I don’t let the Kurt thing bug me, I think it’s mostly meant as a compliment, but I don’t think the world needs another long haired brooding white boy. I do want to be more than that.
Playing lead guitar and singing is really difficult! So how did you come at it? Were you a kid jamming in your room who started singing a bit? Or were you into writing songs and you learned to play guitar to support them?
I was a guitar player first—my sister can sing wonderfully so I would accompany her. I would write and record tunes but I had no strong idea of what I wanted my voice to sound like. When I heard Nirvana I knew I wanted to sound like Cobain, but that wasn’t until the 9th or 10th grade. My time spent before that was mostly finger picking and flat picking acoustic and playing blues and folk recordings I’d find at the library or in samples on Encarta encyclopedia.
Tell me about your first electric guitar and how you related to it when you got it.
I got a Peavey Tracer from my older sister’s friend Eric, which was great, but I had no idea what I was doing with it. It felt odd compared to my acoustic. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I picked up my Memphis Strat at the pawnshop in Ozark that I really fell in love with an electric. The first thing I played was the Melvins ‘Goin Blind’ Kiss cover.
How did you learn to play? Did you have a great teacher or were you somebody who is more self- taught?
I was taught by a village of players. My neighbor Harlan spent a lot of time with me when I was 11-14-years-old, and he taught me how to read tablature and how to put my fingers on the frets. My first tune was ‘Camptown Races’. Next was an old friend Dabo Coley, who played autoharp and lived with some musicians across the river. He taught me ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Hotel California’ (big important songs for a player who doesn’t have his chords), and then the rest was picked up at an open jam in Fayetteville at a coffee house called The Perk. I had formal lessons in college.
There’s this old joke about how many guitars a guitar player needs (just one more). Can you recall how you got your first pro ax and what that felt like?
Any ax is a pro ax. I’ve always played this Memphis Stratocaster. It’s a Japanese knock off and I think it’s from the Mastumoku wood plant. May be wrong though. It’s got a big fat neck, and heavy plywood body, and a super distortion in the bridge. Great for rock n roll.
When someone builds a 3- piece power combo, great guitar work is only one prerequisite. Finding your tone is paramount. What’s your go to rig and how did you come to it?
When I got the Memphis I also picked up a Peavey Classic 50. I played those with no pedals (occasionally a muff) exclusively until last year. I like my Vibrolux and Moog MF drive now. I have an electric mistress I use sometimes for flange, and a tuner.
Most fans don’t understand starting out has its share of genuinely shitty gigs, broken vehicles, PA’s that don’t work, door pay when nobody comes to see you. With a little distance, some of these things become tales and band legends. Any unbelievable one so far?
I’m not sure I have anything unbelievable, just in that most rock n rollers have done some version of this at one point, but me and my pals used to borrow the entire high school jazz combo gear and set it up in a dirt floor turkey house to rehearse and party. There haven’t been any major disasters on the road here, fortunately. As far as any shows going poorly, that’s usually on me.
But those disasters, when survived, lead to greater things and you’ve played some super cool shows of late. And probably met some remarkable people. I see that you played a bill with Rival Sons. Did you meet Scott Holiday and any desire to play his rig?
haha, I did meet Scott Holiday…he’s the best; what a wonderful personality. And yes, his rig was insane, three pedal boards, each almost 5 feet across. It looked like mission control. I admired it, of course, and it sounded brilliant, but rigs are real personal so I’d never ask to play anyone’s unless we’re real close.
Best audience/experience so far?
Prague, in the Czech Republic, had the most energetic and attentive audience I’ve seen, and it’s not like we sold a single ticket in the place (we were on tour with highly suspect #legit). Those kids were just ready to rock.
Speaking of bands like Rival Sons, I just finished a thought provoking book by a local writer named Steve Hyden titled: Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. In it he examines how a changing music business and the DIY democracy of music these days has irrevocably undermined bigger than life rock and roll bands. In his opinion, even the likes of U2 or Bruce Springsteen, through no fault of their own, have become Dad Rock. Yet, there are still these great bands trying to mine that seam like Rival Sons, Greta VanFleet or The Struts. These guys are tapping into some rich history and trying to use it as fuel as opposed to “covering” it. You seem an artist who has that same old soul, keeping rock and roll authentic, edgy and a bit dangerous. Do you ever talk to your friends about where you think you fit in? And what’s your take on the state of rock music in 2018?
Rock n roll is doing better than ever. I think I’m fortunate to be playing around the same time Greta and Rival, King Giz, White Reaper, Fuzz, Ty Segal, Mac Demarco, and many others. We may not make any money, but we don’t do it for the money.
What’s on your playlist these days?
I’ve been riding my bike around listening to Rush and Black Sabbath. Limelight and Wheels of Confusion.
Who do you dig that most people would find most surprising? Here’s your chance to do some promo for any current or past band that in your estimation doesn’t get its due!
I’ve been listening to Bonny Doon, Little Wings, and Cool Gouls. ‘Lotta Things’, ‘The Shredder’, and ‘Gord’s Horse’ are great tunes from those guys.
Have you ever been to or played the Twin Cities before?
Not that I’m aware of!
It’s a given that any artist worth a damn is most invested in what he or she has created most recently. But on stage what song just seems to work, to create that audience feedback loop which makes them a favorite to perform?
Our tune ‘Rock n Roll’ seems to go well. It may just be that perfect time in the set, or a mix of that and the tune, but it always hits.
Running a rock band is a long, never ending road. What’s the next way station for Welles? If we’re talking again 20 years from now what do you hope Welles’ career looks like?
I’m gonna be around making music as long as I’m alive. I’ll be trying to make a living doing it. I want album after album to come out and I want to play shows forever.