Stripmall Ballads is Phillips Saylor. A guitar and banjo slinging 1-man or 5-man band. A folk singer with a punk rock spirit. An artist who thinks in sound.
Saylor has been making music for many, many years and has been performing as Stripmall Ballads for the past three years. Before, he was one member of the Appalachian-tinged duo out of the Pacific Northwest via Hampshire College, The Shiftless Rounders.
Saylor is constantly at work on many projects, musical or otherwise, in his quest to remain a man of the road. His newest album, “Ballads, Stripmall” will be out on July 4. Another album, “Hooked,” out on 10-inch vinyl in the Fall is all goes as planned, will be released with an illustrated comic book by Saylor that tells the folk opera story of the album.
Saylor also works in DC teaching rock and roll philosophy and vocals at an after school program for teenagers and is helping to set up a Guitars Not Guns program that will provide guitars and lessons to at-risk and foster youths.
“Ballads, Stripmall,” in its essence:
“This album is about being poor and uninsured, sick and lost in the Washington DC public health system. It’s also about a woman with a black eye that i see in every woman who has a black eye. It’s about the absurdity of the fact that three medium pizzas are cheaper than one large, even tho it’s twice the amount of pizza. It’s about the dark side of sobriety.”
Saylor took time out to speak with MME…
Q. Why the name Stripmall Ballads? (I get why you perform behind a name, but why that name?)
a couple reasons – people ask what kind of music i play and for years that was my answer. where i grew up got devoured by the stripmall and it kinda fucked me up – seeing all those fields disappear like that. so over the years the stripmall has become, for me, what London was for Dickens; what the Dust Bowl was for Woody – it’s my own dark and twisted Lake Woebegone.
Q. You used to play in The Shiftless Rounders. Do you miss being a part of a duo or is solo for you?
as far as i know i’m still a member of that band. ain’t no “used to.” it’s more of “haven’t for a while.”
stripmall ballads is wonderful for me because it can be whatever i want it to be or need it to be. i have a steady group of fellas in DC who make what gigs they can. i tour with bands that, by third night, i have coopted into my own band. the sumner brothers, evan harris and the driftwood motion, benny cha-cha-, sam parton (be good tanyas), paul lippens, the lonesome brothers, etc… they’re all in the band as far as i’m concerned. they just all don’t know all the songs, can’t make all the dates, all the time, etc….it’s about 50/50 solo/ensemble.
Q. You are working on so many different projects right now. How do you stay focused?
i don’t even think about it.
Q. Your new album, “Ballads, Stripmall,” out on July 4, was recorded in NE Washington, DC. How did you find yourself there? Why were you drawn there?
the freeloader freepress crew pulled the session together at a members house in the neighborhood next to time, so i just walked over there. across benning road, past the charter school where i vote, a left at the liquor store and up the stairs.
Q. Who is the crew? What is a members house?
FFP is pretty much a loose conglomeration of artists and musicians all of whom, in one way or another, support me and my projects. it’s pretty easy to become a member (we have membership cards, even!). literally, the session was booked at a friend’s house.
Q. You are a thematic musician. What does that mean to you and how do you pick your themes, stories?
lately i have been a great believer in the Pretext and Context of a song or another peice of art. they’re kinda like a ying and yang of the creative process. half of what i can bring to the table is Intent, Experience and Interpretation. the other half has to be brought by the songs or projects themselves. what i try to do is stay out of the way of what a song, or particular grouping of songs, is showing me, telling me, relating to me (or others).
Q. You mention Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Is this something you’ve personally experienced? If so, how does that affect your songwriting? If it’s not personal, how were you drawn to the subject?
if the settings for my song could be the stripmall (or northeast DC), the characters that i see, meet or develop often have some form of this Thing for one reason or another; in varing degrees for varing reasons. artisticly, PTSD has both been a source and a tool. it’s usage reflects both my personal and impersonal impressions and experiences.
Q. Do you consider yourself a folk singer? Do you ever play covers on Stripmall Ballads albums? (The Shiftless Rounders played many traditionals).
some days i do, some days i don’t. there’s something very subversive about that term that appeals to me but at the same time it’s trappings are well documented.
as for covers – i’ve always played songs that aren’t technically “mine”. lately, i’ve been working on a bunch of Nirvana songs on the banjo. Surprisingly, Cobain’s melodies are very revealing in certain mountain tunings – who knew???
Q. What do you mean by certain mountain tunings??
by “certain mountain tunings” i mean that usually the banjo is tuned to an open G chord. but there are different tunings that have evolved in the mountains (mountain minor, sawmill tuning, dead mans tuning, etc…). it’s in these more obscure tunings that i am able to find Cobains melodies more accessible.
Q. Who else plays on your record? Was it all you? Who is singing the harmonies with you?
on “ballads, stripmall” it was just me. all but one of the songs was written during and about the previous week, so there was little time to show them to anyone else before i recorded them.
Q. You mentioned using the sounds from the alley outside the studio you recorded the album in. Why? At the end of Mississippi John Hurt there is a siren in the background…was that from the alley? What’s the significance of mixing real and impromptu sound with what you purposefully record??
the theme and story of “ballads, stripmall” is very much a record that could only happen in washington, dc, specifically northeast and southeast, DC. the project housing is cheap as fuck and you hear the alley and the streets and the traffic 24-7. it is a constant presence. all the songs were written in the din of those sounds and to me, they were inseparable. so the day of recording i asked Doc Park to hang a mic out the back window. it was mothers day and the alley was shared by a low-rise project that was abuzz with activity and family, etc. we ran and mixed the alley track as you would any other track and i consider it to be, if any, the only other musician on the album.
Q. Who is Doc Park?
Doc Park is a neighbor, friend, and, literally, a doctor of philiosophy who also happens to be a killer engineer and producer. he’s recorded and co-produced “since jimmy died”, “come on you coward” (hopefully out on july 4th along with the new one), and the new one – “ballads, stripmall.” and he’s canadian, which is a plus in my book.
Q. How did you get involved with cartooning? Your Freeloader Free Press stuff, is it autobiographical?
i learned how to make books by hanging around a bunch of no-good anarchists in olympia, washington….killing time on the road between sound checks and shows with the shiftless rounders. the FFP comics are autobiographical ; some are just illustrated poems or lyrics. some of them i make myself; some i collaborate with other illustrators.
Q. Which Carl Sandberg poem do you use in one of the songs?
“kisses, can you come back like ghosts” is Carl’s. it’s from Honey and Salt. i’ve been working on setting as many of those poems to music for a few years (one of those many pet projects i have on the back burner that’s in no hurry to finish itself). i included this adaptation of his poem on “ballads, stripmall” because……well……when the album comes out and you see the art (which tells a whole other part of the story not covered in the songs)…..i think it’ll make more sense. or at least i hope it will……
Q. Why Sandberg? He is a workingman’s hero, for sure, which is in keeping with your general outlook on life. Which is what??
Carl Sandburg was Jack Black before Jack London (the 19th century hobo/safe-cracker/librarian – NOT the actor. he wrote “You Can’t Win.” fantastic book). he was Beat before Kerouac was even born. he was Woody Guthrie before Bob Dylan. as an ethnographer, he was doing field work in his early days before the Lomax’s ever thought of loading up that huge recording machine into their car…… (before parts of America where considered, academically, as “the field”). Carl’s American Songbag is as important a book documenting the Invisible Republic as any ever written. and as for popular underground anti-establishment 20th century writing, Carl Sandburg – to me – is sorta like the granddaddy of it all.
Q. What are you listening to these days?
as for what i’m listening to these days – pee wee hunt (new orleans trombonist), always digging the flaming lips. bongo joe, hank ballard, the new neko case record, lots of michael hurely.
Q. What, if anything, would you say is your profession? Why do you do all of this?
today i have watched a few movies, had some coffee, done this interview and am about to roll backgammon with my girl. i have a performance later tonight. after that, it’s back to editing a short surreal video-novella for a video/musical performance next week. i have no clue what to call this…. meh?
Q. Why should people listen to your album?
with all of it’s darkness, I think [the album] is beautiful and enjoyable to listen to. It’s not a bummer, so to say. But it raises light on things that are dark. It’s my Folk homage to the ideal that in an ugly world, the ultimate protest is beauty.
Check out the video below, a video/trailer for the movie, “Our Favorite Missing Person.” The music is from Stripmall Ballads.
Stripmall Ballads: “Mississippi John Hurt”
click the above link.
Stripmall Ballads: “Mississippi John Hurt”
|68 Jay Street Bar||dumbo, brooklyn, nyc|
|IOTA (opening for The Duhks!)||arlington, Virginia|
|The Sherman Arts Center||Philly, PA, Pennsylvania|