Reverend Deadeye started his wild-eyed, tent revival, country-gospel-blues one-man band in 2002, just as one his previous projects, the dark, gnarled post-punk outfit, the Bedraggled, was coming to an end. Embracing the music he grew up with as a child on a northeastern Arizona reservation, Reverend Deadeye (aka Brent Burkhart) crafted a sound and persona that expressed the truth found upon hitting emotional and spiritual rock bottom.
Over the years, Deadeye has refined his act, often with the help of collaborators, and due to the fruits of his diligence as a touring act, he has had his most recent album, The Trials and Tribulations of Reverend Deadeye, picked up and released by the Hazelwood label in Germany. We recently had a chance to speak with the good Reverend about the movies in which he was featured last year, his personal musical history, the Voodoo tattoo he bears and the difference between being a touring musician in Europe and the United States.
Westword (Tom Murphy): You've been in two documentaries in the last two years: What are they called and how did you become involved in them?
Reverend Deadeye: The Folksinger wasn't really a documentary, but they ended up filming it kind of like a documentary, because it was a true story about a guy who really was playing the shows. The conversations weren't scripted, but it was a film that was put together and directed. The main character was travelling across Texas, where he met up with different people along the way, and they would talk. Sometimes it would be two people or three. Sometimes it would be while they were drinking and shooting guns. The main character is Possessed By Paul James, but his real name is John Conrad.
The other was Can't Take It With You When You Die! I got involved in The Folksinger because the director asked for a list of names from Conrad, on which I was included. It was a list of names of people he had met on the road. The director called me and asked if I would come to Austin, so I drove down there. Conrad lives in that area but he moves around.
Can't Take It With You When You Die! is more of a documentary. The filmmakers came to Aachen, Germany when I was there. Christoph Mueller was having a show of his art, and I was coming the same night, and he puts on the "outlaw" series in Aachen that is kind of an underground bunker they've been squatting in for years.
Probably mostly punk rock stuff gets played there, but they have an outlaw country series they do. They filmed me live and then filmed an interview with Christoph and I talking about similar things to what was discussed in The Folksinger but a different take on what it means to be an artist in the world today and such.
Ww: You were in the experimental rock bands Nahum, Soul Bender and the Bedraggled: What inspired you to do the kind of music you're doing now?
RD: The music that I play now definitely comes from an earlier period of my life, from when I was a kid. It's more influenced by that. I think the music I listened to in high school was pushing me away from that. A band like Soul Bender was a place for me to experiment with my ability to write music -- and Bedraggled, for that matter. Soul Bender was a little different, because I wasn't as much of a focal point in the songwriting. I didn't play an instrument, but I sang. Bobby Jamison was in the band; James Kelsey was on drums, and then Vince Pimentel. Henry Kelsey played drums at different points, as well.
In the Bedraggled, for the most part, they were my songs. For some, we came together and jammed on them, but other times, I'd bring a song to the table, and they'd write around it. It was kind of a fight, because, even at that time, I was pushing the band in a different direction from where the rest of the band wanted to go. I started writing new songs in my basement, and I would bring them to the band, and some of them we would do and some we wouldn't.
For instance, "Turn or Burn" was a Bedraggled song. It was an interesting song for the band to play because it was a different style than usual. The Bedraggled sort of faded out. We did a show with Firewater, and then I kept doing the Reverend Deadeye stuff, and a year or so later, we did that last show with the Phantom Limbs. I've done five or six Bedraggled songs, pulling them out, revamping them a little, since then.
In the beginning of Reverend Deadeye, I can't think of something specific that sparked my interest in playing that style of music, other than it was what I was interested in at the time. I started listening to my old records again, like releases on Canaan Records and they had crazy old bands like Hemphills, the Happy Goodman Family, the Blackwood Brothers, a lot of quartets. I definitely had some Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash and Chuck Wagon Gang. I got my grandparents' and my parents' old records, after my grandpa died. I still have them all. Country-gospel is the basis of what I do now.
Ww: Not to get off on a tangent, but I see that you have a vévé tattoo -- why did you pick that kind of design?
RD: I got that when I turned thirty. What it represented was a bridge over troubled waters, a ship over troubled waters, taking you through tumultuous times in your life. I don't have conflicts over belief systems, like people whose beliefs are much more specific. I don't know if it was because I was raised on a reservation, where people are much more open minded about ideas and making them their own. I'm always willing to see the other side of issues.
I don't think there is absolute truth in our understanding. I just think it's us coming as close as we can to our understanding of things. Even science is a form of exploration. Twenty years from now, science will be altered because new things will have been discovered. The problem that people get into, I think, is that they always think that when they come to this pinnacle that that's the truth. But more accurately it's the closest thing to the truth that we know.
Ww: You've toured extensively in the USA and Europe. What would you say the major differences are in terms of how you're treated as an artist and your reception by audiences between the two, or perhaps between different regions and countries?
RD: In Europe, being an artist is a legitimate thing to do. You don't get looked at like a second class citizen. Here, if you're doing any kind of art, people ask you what you're going to do with it. Here, if you do any kind of art, people wonder what you're going to do with it. That's fine that you can sing those songs and paint those pictures, but what are you going to do with it? But when you make a certain amount of money, you've made it. Then you're okay.
There, if you get to the club early, every time, you're going to get a sound check, and you're going to get fed once or twice. Sometimes you come in, and they'll have food for you to eat, and later on, they provide you with supper, then you play the show. They never give you drink tickets -- "Here's your two drink tickets, use them wisely." Whatever makes your stay there good, they do it. At night, you'll always have accommodations provided by the club.
Here, the difference -- and this is something I think I talked about in Can't Take It With You When You Die! -- you walk into the club, if you get there early, they'll tell you to come back when the sound guy is there. Sometimes they won't even tell you you can bring your stuff in until the sound guy gets there. When he gets there, he motions you toward the stage.
If you want a drink, until the promoter gets there, you're on your own, and you have to pay for it. Food is hardly ever provided. Sometimes a club will have a kitchen and sometimes you'll get something to eat there. Then I load out, and sleep in my van or bus. In the U.S., the more and more you play, the more people are excited about you and know about you, the more they're going to be generous to you.
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But that's not true in Europe. The first time I went there, I was treated like one of their own. There was no, "Well this is your first tour; you're going to have to take some lumps." I got treated the same way as if I was there the third time. It's pretty amazing.
The audiences really depend on the people: Germans are a little austere, and the Portuguese are much more flamboyant. The Germans take a little time -- sometimes by the end of the set; sometimes it's not until the second or third time they see you. This last time, with a record being on a label in Germany, and I'd had a few write-ups, people were there because they knew who I was, or even had a record, and that makes a big difference.
The first time I come into a town, it's a matter of winning over the crowd. But that last tour, they were already familiar with the music. Audiences in America connect with the music easier, because they understand the words, and they're easier to win over. But the Germans still love it; they're just more cordial. They'll clap and be quiet. In America, people will sometimes talk over the music but in Germany, everyone is quiet.