Not Your Daddy’s Blues: An Interview with The Black Eyed Snakes

Posted March 10, 2005 in
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Meet The Black Eyed Snakes. They drove all the way to Utah from Duluth, Minn. just to see you. Chicken-Bone George (a.k.a Alan Sparhawk of Low; guitar/vocals), "Big House" Bobby Olson (guitar), "Smokin'" Brad Nelson (drums) and Justin "The Doctor" Sparhawk (percussion) are four of the most humble musicians you'll ever meet.

Black-Eyed Snakes (courtesy of

Black-Eyed Snakes at the Urban Lounge

The Black Eyed Snakes are a blues band, but not the kind of blues you're probably used to hearing. They don't sound like Etta James or T-Bone Walker. They sound like everything that is good about old-school blues fused with a modern "garage" sound. The 'Snakes play a loud and aggressive form of the blues that will leave you gasping for air—never before have those classic 12 bars been so drenched in such raw, distorted noise.

Someone once told me that you don't really know a person until you've seen them after they've just woken up. When the 'Snakes walk into Lamb's Caf at 9 a.m. after playing a late show in Ogden the night before, I feel a little guilty for making them meet me so early. They tell me how they didn't get back to Salt Lake until 4 a.m. and I apologize for such an early curtain call. Although I can tell that they’re tired, they smile and explain how they needed to get up early so they can go skiing later in the day.

We get a large booth table and sit down to order. John Coltrane blares in the background as I tell them that breakfast is on SLUG–that my editor insisted. I order toast and they laugh and ask, "Did your editor tell you to do that as well?"

SLUG: I know the 'Snakes don't tour much. Especially out West. What brought you to Salt Lake City?
Alan: I think in the beginning it was Sundance, and then it became skiing. I was like, "I've gotta be at Sundance for this thing so we should do some shows." We kind of want to start doing tours where we go and do something interesting each time. Right now I've got this crazy idea. We want to do the Arctic Circle tour: Fairbanks, North Russia, Iceland, Finland, Siberia, etc. It's going to cost money, so we were thinking some outdoor equipment company or something like that could give us some money.

SLUG: You should get a team of sled dogs.
Alan: We've actually gotten e-mails from this guy who runs a military radio thing in Antarctica. He's like, "We play you guys all the time!" So we're thinking of playing Antarctica.
Brad: That's our dream. We want to get there. If you have connections with the Navy, let us know. We're trying to get a ride.

SLUG: I noticed that you were filming the show at the Urban Lounge (and my interview); what are you planning on using the footage for?
Alan: I don't know really. We're sketching out a few ideas to try to do some media-related stuff. We're kind of experimenting with this whole rock n' roll technical scheme.

SLUG: How did the 'Snakes from into such a tight group with such a unique sound?
Alan: We've all lived in Duluth for quite a while, and I've known Bobby for years. I just had this idea to try to do this really loose, simple, song-based blues band. I wanted to not do all the things that people think blues is these days. I wanted to get back to more rhythm, like the stuff you hear with John Lee Hooker's music. So, we just gave it a try ... tried to figure what that thing Hooker had that Kenny Wayne Shepard doesn't have. I don't know if we found it, but we found something—-something primal.

SLUG: What is the music scene like in Duluth?
Bobby: The Duluth scene is a little different from other places because there's no joinerism going on. If one band has a measure of success, six more that are just like them don't pop up. Everybody basically goes, "Great, we've got a great band. Now, who's playing ska?" At any one time the three or four bands that are enjoying the most success are usually completely different from each other, which is great. It's unique because it's small enough to where we all know each other, and big enough to where there's enough exchange of ideas, and enough people to play with that you can create things. It's actually at a really good crossroads right now.
Brad: There's a blue collar under-layer to every band there, so there's an organic realness to it all.
Alan: It's the same struggle there as anywhere else. Ninety-nine percent of us aren't making any money.
Brad: In Duluth, nobody expects to ever make any money. So if we're not creating something that we think is interesting, and that we think is fun to do, then what's the point? This is it.
Bobby: It's total safety. I mean, what could go wrong?

SLUG: Where did the names come from?
Alan: When we first started, one of the first songs we had was "Chicken-Bone George." So whatever. I guess I was like "well, I'll be Chicken-Bone George." I thought, "I'm not going to be the only idiot with a stupid blues name. We made sure that before we started playing that everyone should have blues names.
Brad: I don't think we ever expected it to be anything but a local fun project. So, we made the goofy names, and then the CD got a little distribution.
Alan: I think a lot of people misinterpret it like we're doing some shtick—like we're putting on some kind of pretend show where we pretend like we're old blues guys. I think a lot of the time the blues names were misinterpreted, like we're making fun of blues. We're not making fun of blues. Bobby: In some of the ink we got, people were talking about how maybe it was a joke or whatever. But it didn't really bother me because if anyone had been to one of our shows, or listened to the records with any kind of attention, then they would have to be fairly certain that it wasn't a spoof.

SLUG: Why don't the 'Snakes have a bassist?
Alan: Not having a bass really frees things up. Bobby and I can play off each other. If we know what key we're in, we can go anywhere. If you've got a bass player, you kind of have to know where you're going from, second to second.

Halfway through breakfast, our conversation somehow drifted from skiing in Utah to Paul Bunyan and his impact on Minnesotan culture. Apparently, Brad grew up in a town called Brainerd. A town whose claim to fame is Paul Bunyan Land, an amusement park that has the largest animated Paul Bunyon in the World. Bobby breaks out in laughter as he tells me that Paul Bunyon is "huge" up there. With the a face as austere as my 6th grade sex-ed teacher, Brad tells me how Paul made the Great Lakes by just "walkin’ around." I express my jealousy to the Black Eyed Snakes because the small town in Oklahoma where I'm from doesn't have anything nearly as cool as a giant, talking Paul Bunyon. "What you need is a big cow," suggests Alan. "Then more people will come to see it. The biggest talking cow in the world." I suggest the world's biggest pile of cow-shit, and Bobby one-ups me and suggests The Cow-Shit Palace. "Even if nobody came; everybody would want a bumper sticker that says, 'I've been to The Cow-Shit Palace.’"

After the laughter dies down, I remember that I'm doing an interview and still have a handful of questions to ask.

SLUG: Do you find that a lot of Low fans come to the shows?
Brad: Less so now. The first couple of times we toured around there were.
Alan: It's still like that. I definitely see them. They are just kind of hiding in the corners. People you can tell are a little nervous being there.
Bobby: Some of them I feel sorry for. There was one guy who looked like he was mortally wounded. He saw the 'Snakes show and was almost physically ill. He was so upset that Alan was doing "that," that he couldn't even speak.
Brad: There has definitely been a lot more written about the band because of Low. There's been a lot of posters that say, "With Alan Spar hawk of Low." Compared to just being some other band starting up in Duluth, it definitely gave us a huge catapult.

Alan: People were curious. It's not so much that I'm trying to tell fans, " Well, now I'm really a flea-bag like this instead. This is how I really feel." It's like; hey guys, thanks for coming to all the Low shows. Here's something completely different. Come on down. It's next Tuesday night and it's only three bucks. This might be of interest to some of you.
I think most of the Low fans are basically just music fans. There's all kinds of music in the world. Just because you do one sound doesn't your bound to it.
Brad: There's kind of that pressure—like actors, you know, the typecast guy. You do an action movie, now you always have to ... Al gets a lot of that. Like, "You’re supposed to be this. This is what you do." Why not paint a different picture sometimes?

SLUG: Do you enjoy playing smaller venues?
Bobby: Definitely. I think what we do comes across much more ... There's like an interaction between the band and the crowd in the room. We very rarely generate that kind of vibe in a big space. The farther we get away from the crowd, the farther up off the floor we get, the less things seem to happen.

SLUG: Drunk guys can't get in your face.

[When the ’Snakes played at Urban Lounge, a very inebriated fan stood inches away from Alan, screaming and dancing in his face.]

Bobby: We like people in our faces.
Alan: The best shows we've had were like that. When we started, we'd set up in a corner outside and just play. When things started getting crazy, people started dancing, more people started showing up, it was a free-for-all. People were falling all over the stage.
Bobby: By the end, the whole crowd was up onstage with us.
Alan: We were dancing with people ... people getting up on top of stuff …
Bobby: That to me is totally Duluth. That's what we're aiming at.
Alan: Sometimes we'll do a show where everyone is standing with their hands in their pockets and nodding their head like this [Alan proceeds to pantomime the perfect indie-rock head-nod]. It's not what we're about. It's nice, and I guess at least they listen.
Brad: Even in Duluth, that's what people did at first. A lot of times when we travel, it's like, "Oh man, they just stood there and stared at us." But, really a lot of times the first time you hear it, that's enough because you don't want to dance. You want to focus on what you’re hearing.
Bobby: When we're traveling, the audience doesn't have the context. They don't know that's kind of what we're aiming at. But when we're playing close to home, you end up with people right next to you jumping up and down and playing your instruments. That, to me, is the mark of the perfect show: when by the end of it, you can’t tell who's in the band and who's not.
Alan: It's fun when it's a small show. When it's not a show, it's an event. It's not a T.V. It's not a little box you can watch.
Brad: We played a guerilla show at the Outdoor Retailer's "Backcountry Basecamp" in the mountains yesterday (above Solitude, but I can't remember the exact name of the place). Basically, it was a huge demo for backcountry skiing types. We just set up on the snow at one end of the mini-tent city, plugged into an RV owned by an old hippie named "Telemark Ted," and let it rip. That group is pretty hardcore and everyone had a great time.

SLUG: I'm all out of questions. Can you think of anything else you'd like the faithful readers of SLUG magazine to know?
Bobby: If you live above the Arctic, give us a call.