When I spoke with Ed Anderson on a spring afternoon, he was at home in Bloomington, Illinois where he called his dog outside to sit with him while we talked. His countrified roots-rock band, Backyard Tire Fire, was at home on break from touring behind Vagabonds and Hooligans, the band’s third studio CD, and third CD to be produced with their hometown buddy Tony San Filippo at Bloomington’s Oxide Lounge.
But Anderson is already a thousand steps beyond Vagabonds, moving forward at a breakneck pace, writing songs, re-working others, playing live gigs. His workmanlike approach to songwriting means that he’s probably written dozens (if not a hundred) songs since the finishing touches were put on Vagabonds in 2006.
Anderson is the chief songwriter of BTF and is working hard to hone his craft and emulate his heroes, and lofty heroes they are. During our conversation, he invoked the Titans—folks like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty. “All of those people who are just great songwriters who have made and continue to make great albums year after year” he says. “All of those guys can sit down by themselves with an acoustic guitar and entertain. Or they can sit down and entertain with a guitar and a band behind them. They can sit down with a piano by themselves and play. Or they can rip the shit out of an electric guitar and play rock ‘n roll sets.” And so the template is set. Anderson does all of these things, often opening a Tire Fire show seated alone with his acoustic guitar, only to move on to the keyboards for a few tunes, and finally, whipping up a maelstrom of crashing guitars and rock and roll fury before the night is over. At times, the onstage version of Tire Fire can seem at odds with the multi-layered, latter-day Wilco-ish sound that characterizes 2005’s Bar Room Semantics and Hooligans.
But seen in the context of Anderson’s notions of the Entertainer, their albums reflect the very same ethos that characterizes those live shows. The band shifts from roadhouse rockers to introspective crooners in the span of a couple of tracks on Vagabonds and Hooligans, always shifting but remaining grounded in their identity. The CD starts off much like a Tire Fire show might…the plaintive acoustic guitar and Anderson’s sweeping melody of the title track drawing the listener in. By the time “Green-Eyed Soul” cranks up with its undeniable hooks, crashing guitars and sing-along chorus Backyard Tire Fire is in full rock-band mode. A few tracks later, “A Long Time” features a very simple but melodic chord progression, sparsely presented by solo piano. At times, you feel like you’re getting three bands for the price of one, but there is no mistaking the common thread throughout.
To achieve this varied approach, Anderson taught himself to play piano somewhat late in life. “I wanted to see what kind of songs I would write if I played piano,” he says matter-of-factly. “And really it just simplified my songwriting tremendously. I write stuff that I wouldn’t have written that simply on guitar because I can play guitar pretty well. I have a few limited chops [on piano] but for me it’s just the melody and the vocals when I’m playing piano. I tend to write like more simple melodies and three chord type of things that perhaps I wouldn’t have settled for with guitar. When people start noodling around and doing too much it becomes too jumbled and busy and the groove is lost. So writing on keys has helped me to understand that simpler is better. I think I knew that. But I wasn’t putting it into practice as much as I have since I started playing keys.”
Perhaps the continuity comes from familiarity too. Working at home, says Anderson, helps the band stay grounded. “It works out nice because if we get too buzzed in the studio we can walk home,” he cracks. “It’s not like we’re on the road sitting in a hotel room making a record and just go to the town bar every night We’ve got grass to cut and dinner to make. we’ve spent so little time here in town it’s almost an excuse to spend a little bit of time at home for a couple of weeks to get in the studio and work….and we just like being home when we can because its so rare that we are these days. We’d schedule a few days here or a week there, set up the gear in the studio, record, then go on tour for a while, then come back and set it all back up and work on it, we chipped away at it over the course of several months.”
The problem with recording an album in bits and pieces is that you want to play the new songs on the road. But sometimes you get a little too set in your ways. “We had worked songs out on the road and had an arrangement and then got into the studio and thought: You know what, this just isn’t working the way it should. So along with Tony we cut parts out and constructed some tunes with a way different feel form the way we were originally doing it.”
That approach may be ramped up a bit in the near future. The band is ready to step out of their comfort zone a bit, and Anderson has been working with renowned guitarist and studio-guy Jay Bennett. “I think my favorite Wilco recordings are the ones that he was involved with…those are the ones that I really dig,” says Anderson. A fresh set of ears might do him some good he says. “I’m bringing to Jay songs that, probably 95% of them have been played live and we already have arrangements. Maybe he’ll have something different. I think we’re professional enough that we can open up our ears and open up our minds to other people’s ideas to take these songs from a different angle. Some of them don’t have arrangements and that will be interesting to see how those played out.”
He’s trying to resist the urge to play his newest material, instead savoring the appeal of “saving material up and not playing it live so by the time you hit the studio it has its own freshness and life and hasn’t taken any shape.”
And so the quest continues for Ed Anderson and Backyard Tire Fire—tweaking, honing and improving in their quest to simply entertain. By all accounts from their live shows, and the strong showing of Vagabonds & Hooligans, they’re getting there.