St. Paul and the Broken Bones has come a long way in just three albums, growing from the ridiculously energetic Southern soul act that won over critics and fans alike with its 2014 debut, Half the City, into the genre-smashing outfit that unveiled a diverse, creative new sound on last year's Young Sick Camellia.
The band, which landed an opening slot for the Rolling Stones and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and CBS This Morning just a couple years after forming, is known for delivering some of most memorable live shows in recent popular music.
As the group prepared for a tour that will include stops in Denver and Fort Collins, talented and bombastic frontman Paul Janeway spoke with Westword by phone from his home in Alabama.
Westword: You've been coming to Colorado a lot. How do you feel about the place?
Paul Janeway: So far so good. It’s beautiful for the most part, and I guess we keep selling tickets, so that’s the key. It’s a pretty place.
There was a moment at the Folks Fest [in Lyons in August] when someone threw some flowers on stage, and you kind of had your way with them. Is that just how you feel about flowers in general?
[Laughs.] You know, I’m not usually thrown props, and I thought that was a golden opportunity someone gave me. Actually, it was crazy; those things have thorns in them, and I cut my hands up pretty bad doing all the shenanigans. So I actually bled a little bit.
At least it was just your hands…
How did your show clothes evolve from suits to these James Brown-type capes?
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I think, for me, the first record was kind of a normal suit; the second record was a little flashier suit; then, this record’s been kind of no suit at all — kind of a cape and some sort of sweater apparatus, sweater-pants thing. I think, for me, you just wanna get a little creative with what you do, and do something different, maybe something that you don’t really see a lot of. The cape was kind of…I mean, you can hardly even call it a cape; it’s almost like a muumuu in a way. I was in Nashville, and I met this guy who showed me some things, and I was like, “Man, I think this would be cool to do.” I wanted to get out of the suit. I was destroying too many suits. I needed something a little bit more flexible, that could last longer.
You were born and raised in the church. Are you still finding your way out of some of the restrictions that life might’ve put on you?
I mean, as far as restrictions go, I don’t probably have too many of those. Stage is kind of the Wild West; you kinda do what you wanna do on stage, but I guess one kind of residual effect is that I don’t drink and never have. Part of that’s because I grew up religious, and at this point, I’m an adult, and at this point, why [start]? I have no desire to do it. There are definitely residual things, but for the most part, I don’t apply too much of that, not consciously. There’s always some subconscious stuff.
It’s so interesting that you’ve never drunk in your entire life, because now you’re so associated with the WhiskyX events. What’s it like to be immersed in that kind of atmosphere when you don’t drink?
I mean, it’s always kind of funny for me, because people are always, like, “Oh, here’s a free bottle of whatever,” and I’m always, like, “Okay, thanks.” I usually just give it away, turn it into Christmas gifts or whatever. For me, it’s just not something that I’m into. What is odd to me is that in a way, venues are very much alcohol-filled places; that’s what they do, and it’s always kind of odd for me. I’m always just kinda like, “All right, I guess I’ll just sell that more.” It’s always a weird situation, but I think it’s funny that I’m typically the most sober person in the room, yet you’re kind of responsible for alcohol sales in a way. It’s an interesting dynamic. I mean, I don’t have any moral objection to it. I probably did when I was much younger, but now it’s just out of [the fact that] I’ve never done it. I don’t find it immoral or anything.
The heart of St. Paul and the Broken Bones is your voice. When I hear a song like “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” I’m simultaneously in awe of how far your voice can go and afraid you might just lose it forever at any moment. How do you take care of your voice?
I get a lot of sleep. It’s really a key thing. Not drinking helps. Not smoking helps. If things don’t feel right — which I’ve learned over the years as a singer — I’m like, “Maybe don’t press on that too much.” It can sound rough, but maybe it’s not actually that rough. And I’ve always been able to kind of do whatever I want with my voice, so it’s a fun thing to do. I try to take care of it and make sure that’s getting plenty of tea, and make sure I feel all right and it gets warmed up and all that good stuff.
What would you say are the main reasons for your sound — the writing, the arrangements, the engineering — evolving so quickly over just three albums?
I think change is always what’s gonna drive me. It’s gonna drive the sound. You wanna change it. You don’t wanna lose the essence. My voice is always gonna be tethered; it’s always gonna keep us somewhere, in a certain direction. So you can musically do about anything, and I think we’ve kind of found that out. It’s kind of fun, because it’s a really talented band, so how far can the band go? What all kind of different things can the band do? I get to experience that. I love the recording process, working with people with different goals and things like that. I’ve always loved change, and to see how far you can get out there.
You come from Alabama; you come from traditional music and the church, and now you’re seeing “how far you can get out there.” What’s it like seeing artists choose later in their careers to try the traditional-music route? Do you hear people like that and find it transparent?
I mean, yeah, of course you do. We kind of laugh about it a little, because it seems like people are trying to gravitate toward that, and we’re, like, “Nah, that’s not really what we wanna be, because we are.” So I get it. I always think it’s interesting because, for one thing, we got so much shit growing up; when you’re from the South, you’re always like, “God, how can I change this? How do I get rid of this or that?” A lot of people do the kind of more rootsy, backbeat kinda thing. They’re going towards that, and we’re like, “How do we expand our sound well past that?” The difference is, that’s a part of us. We’re not trying to do anything; it just is. It’s not a knock or anything; we’ve all got different goals. But for us to go sit back and do a rootsy record that’s very steeped in a certain thing — it’s almost too easy. That doesn’t feel like you’re challenging yourself. That’s what we’ve done since we were four years old. But it’s funny. We always kinda get a kick out of it.
Do you have people from Alabama who condemn you for leaving the church and for making this kind of music?
I think there are plenty of people who are aware that there’s plenty of world out there. I grew up in very small-town Alabama; I’m a liberal guy, so my politics are probably more worrisome than the music for some people in my family. I think that part is like, “Oh God, he’s lost his way” — that kind of thing. But as far as music itself, I think most of them are just happy that someone gets out, you know? You’re not having to work at U.S. Steel or something, you know? My dad was definitely very skeptical, because my dad works in pavement and construction, and it was kinda like, “Making music and making a living are not typically two things that happen.” But I got him a tour of ESPN, and he was like, “Okay, well, maybe this isn’t so bad.” So I won him over. But I think, for the most part, I haven’t had any condemnation about, like, the music side. Definitely about the politics, but that really doesn’t bug me.
Tom Waits was one of your first loves after branching out of basically church-mandated music. How did you listen to all those great boozy Tom Waits songs and not want to try alcohol?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. There’s a lot of music like that. There’s some psych rock that I really like, and I’ve never taken acid. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I kinda got out of love with the church, and for some reason one of the first things that was quote-unquote secular…Tom Waits somehow snuck in there. What it reminded me of — and this is not a knock — but there was an old woman that played at our church sometimes, and the way that he plays is very similar to the way that she played. There was kind of a self-taught, drunken waltz to the piano, so when I initially heard Tom Waits, it reminded me of that older woman playing piano. Then you just kind of get deeper, and at that point it was just kind of like, “What makes my ears perk up?” Tom was definitely that, because it’s so unique, and you just go down rabbit holes. I mean, I really was not exposed to a lot of music as a child. It was gospel and a little bit of soul stuff, so someone like Tom Waits just opens up a world that you’re just, like, “What? This exists?” But initially the appeal was that it reminded me of the old woman in my church who would play piano during offerings.
How does a teenager in small-town Alabama even discover Tom Waits?
I did this thing where — I call it being a late bloomer. At that point, I had never listened to a Rolling Stones record in full or a Beatles record in full. I just didn’t grow up around it, and people find that bizarre, but at the time it was my reality. I mean, the Internet was around, so I would just kind of research artists. I assume he probably had an album that was released around that time, and I just kind of fell in love, and then it kind of went all over the place. I fell in love with Radiohead. I finally listened to a Beatles album. Things like that.
Have you been able to meet Tom Waits?
I have not. That is one on the list. I don’t know what I would say, but that is one that would definitely be pretty awesome.
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Well, we’ll see you in Denver for WhiskyX. I’m hoping Alabama has a MoonshineX.
[Laughs.] No! No! I’m sure it’d be a little different…
St. Paul and the Broken Bones plays at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 17, at Washington's, 132 Laporte Avenue in Fort Collins. Tickets are $30 to $35. Find more information at WashingtonsFoCo.com.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones also plays at the WhiskyX, which takes place from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, October 18, at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, 7711 East Academy Boulevard. Tickets are $50 to $300 and available at TheWhiskyX.com.