He grew up wanting to make horror movies, but then he got into Tom Waits. For M. Witte, a roots-punk frontman making his more acoustic solo debut with the compelling Ol’ Boy, nothing comes more naturally than a murder ballad.
Murder ballads are an essential part of the folk music tradition, but hearing them written in the second person was a fresh and jarring experience. Witte’s sound is mostly folk and acoustic country, but some more experimental elements help that disturbing feeling creep in.
Just take “The Fly,” a rare song that tries to put a positive spin on decaying flesh. Witte tells his listener about how they are hearing voices encouraging them to kill. Brisk guitar picking and a bass provide most of the sound, but either a theremin or a steel instrument of some sort takes the lead a few times to produce a sound similar to a buzzing fly. Except more melodic and creepy at the same time.
Other tracks make excellent use of the second person. “Bedtime for Bozos” describes how you’re heading to your inevitable and well-deserved death. “Three Days Out” is about a violent man being released from prison, but it’s you who’s dating the man’s ex. It’s an interesting strategy that makes these songs take on the feel of the horror movies Witte wants to emulate. The best films in the slasher genre convince the audience to experience the killer’s hunt or the victim’s struggles vicariously, even if it’s discomforting. Witte, only having three or four minutes to get the job done, is just a bit less subtle.
Using elements of distortion over a relatively traditional background also helps add to the feeling of shattered normalcy on Ol’ Boy. The title track, a gory and folksy legend, brings the ideas full circle. Violence and depravity is an inescapable part of human nature as well as an essential element in American storytelling culture. This particular entry in that anthology celebrates the sickness, but it’s entirely aware that it’s sick. The fact that the audience is made to feel a part of the story means they may have to do some reflecting on those facts too.
“Back From The Dead,” a song in the mold of Blaze Foley’s more tender works, provides an interesting idea of what could follow a horrific act. This story is told in the first person, and the character is retiring home after an absence of many years. Old connections are gone, and the act of returning to normalcy is decidedly bittersweet. There was no clear path forward for the character, who probably just got out of prison, but I felt very much at ease as a listener. As interesting as the ideas explored in some of the other tracks are, this song and the way it conveys conflicting emotions is the most unforgettable for me.
Glide’s Trevor Christen spoke with Witte about the album and our conversation veered into eerie territory on a couple of occasions, though to be fair, I would have been quite disappointed if it didn’t.
Let’s lead off with a track called “The Fly,” which seems to come from either the mind of a serial killer or some other really dark place.
Oh yeah. Basically, I relay a lot of sentiment from 80s horror. I grew up in Jersey, and when I was a little kid I had a babysitter. We didn’t have cable TV or anything, we just had like one little television in the basement. We weren’t allowed to watch too much tv as kids.We could watch a couple Christmas special when that came out, and The Wizard of Oz and stuff. But we had a babysitter when I was probably around 6 years old. And for me, there’s a lot of sentiment of 80s horror stuff channeled through the babysitter because I wasn’t allowed to watch any of that stuff because I was so little.
So the babysitter would go see the movies.This is the early 80s, and there were so many bad horror movies playing during that time. So she would I was you know I was very I was six years old. I think I liked her as much as a 6-year-old kid could like a 17-year-old woman. But she used to go to the movies with her boyfriend every weekend and she would she would describe what she saw in detail. Everything that happened in the movie. It was all horrible. And so I would work them up in my mind, you know. I have my own pictures of what she was describing and there is no way I could possibly imagine how it would look on screen. It was obviously a lot more real than how it looked by the time I actually got around to seeing that stuff.
A lot of the song comes from that place or whatever. All the songs have a lot of references to some obscure and some not so obscure 80s horror, a lot Evil Dead 2 stuff. I kind of associate all that stuff with growing up. And I guess that’s where that that all comes from.
Does the babysitter know what has come of all this information?
No, I’ve asked my parents and they don’t remember what her last name was. In that period from two or three until probably about ten or whenever you stop getting baby sat, there were a lot of different faces. I believe her name was Pam. Because they have sketches. I used to draw pictures of her when she was babysitting and that’s the only reference to her I have. My parents have no clue and it’s been a long time. But yeah, it all came from that. I was obsessed. When I was a kid I thought that’s what I was going to do, make horror movies. And then I got into Tom Waits and it all kind of changed.
I think that’ll be how I describe your album. Horror movies, except by Tom Waits.
(Laughter) I look back, and a lot of them are really poorly made, but I get this warm feeling. It’s like having your mom’s banana bread 20 years later or something. It automatically takes you to that place. It’s not about the violence or the getting off on violence, you just tie it into your childhood like you do with your first girl…
…I think Evil Dead is the most inspiring because it’s so hands on and so effective without taking itself too seriously, kind of like what I do. Death is as much a part of life as anything, so I’m comfortable singing about it.
One thing I find really interesting with the more horrific tracks is that you speak in the second person, which is unusual in any type of lyrics, but especially I think with these. In the lyrics of “The Fly,” “Bedtime for Bozos,” “Three Days Out,”there are all references to the listener as “you.” That seems like the type of psychological twist that might be making a statement.
With music, you have to paint a picture in your mind and some storytelling works and some get boring. If you’ve heard it once, unless it’s really clever wordplay like you know the old you know Shel Silverstein stuff, it has to have to really be interesting. If it’s constantly “I, I, I,” sometimes people lose interest because it’s like you’re an actor just trying out different parts for each song. Sometimes it’s more comfortable to use the second person. You’re just telling a story about someone else, it has nothing to do with you, you’re just the narrator.It’s kind of separating that character from yourself. It’s very seldom I listen to a record all the way through. I don’t know if people do that. I mean maybe they listen to a record the first time to figure out their favorite songs and then they put it in the mix.
But there are very few records I listen to all the way through, so you try to change it up as much as you can.You try to change it up, but there’s only so much you can do because you want to be cohesive and keep the songs cohesive but sometimes you can’t keep people’s attention or your own attention. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision about the second person, third person, whatever. I think it just kind of happens like that.
All moods have their purposes and there are some really strong gloomy notes here, but there’s a track called “Back From the Dead” that I found strangely beautiful and peaceful and worth highlighting.
I’m a pretty big Blaze Foley fan. I like the style of his guitar playing and the tragedy of his life. His songs are some of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. They ruin you, man. I was thinking a lot about him when I was writing so it was definitely a sort of tribute. It’s definitely in his style or as close as I could get to it anyway.
This song is when you go through something and you come back and have a relatively clean slate to work with and you have no idea who you are anymore. You have a past, but it’s been interrupted by some interval of punishment or whatever happened to you and you disappear for awhile and come back. It’s like you died and came back and you get to restart, but I think human beings have a pretty hard time with that.Not just when you’re middle-aged but even in your 20s or 30s. Starting everything over and going to a place where nobody knows you. But in this case, it’s familiarity with nothing of substance. It’s just its houses with different people in them and you know people’s numbers, but they don’t work anymore and you have no idea what to do with yourself. You can use that as a metaphor for anything, really.
For me, even going back to my hometown is not always a good feeling, even if it is the same people. That kind of came from that place. It’s not really dark, just a little bit sad, a little bit bleak, but you get the idea that the guy’s at least at peace with himself