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Gurf's Up!

Native son Gurf Morlix talks about music, film, happiness, & Lucinda Williams

When Gurf Morlix left Hamburg with his guitar, bound for Austin, Texas in 1975, he couldn’t have imagined what a musical adventure his life was to become. At the time, Austin was a quarter of the size it is now, and venues like the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters were in their heyday—a place where hippies, rednecks, and businessmen would mix in the audience, drinking beer and listening to bands that were creating the left-of-center country/blues rock sound that gave Austin its identity as a music hub. “It was an amazing place, and an amazing time,” Morlix recalled in a recent phone interview from a summer cottage in northern Ontario.

By 1981, he was in Los Angeles as that city’s neo-country scene was taking off. He was playing a bit with fellow Hamburg ex-pat Peter Case in the Plimsouls, among others, eventually falling in with songsmith Lucinda Williams. They shared an 11-year creative partnership in which he served as guitarist, band leader, backup singer, and producer of two of her critically acclaimed albums. After that, he accompanied Warren Zevon on tour. Still, that’s just scratching the surface of a career that keeps branching off in exciting directions.

Artvoice: You wear a lot of different hats—instrumentalist, producer, singer, songwriter. Which is most fun for you?

Gurf Morlix: I kinda like ‘em all. The reason I’ve been playing more lately is that I finally wrote some songs I liked after 35 years of trying. I really like being in the studio. I think that’s probably my strong suit, but once I wrote these songs that I liked in the last few years I started wanting to play more. So now I’ll play anywhere anybody wants to listen to me.

AV: I particularly like the song “She’s a River,” from the current album.

GM: Yeah, I got lucky on that one.

AV: How’d that one come to you?

GM: It was weird. I was gonna co-write a song with a friend of mine, and he had the title, “She’s a River.” We sat down and got nowhere for about an hour. Then I came up here to Canada...this is last summer...and I just started over and wrote it without him. I gave him some publishing credit on it. But I was starting with the title, and it just sort of popped out. I like those ones that just come as a surprise.

AV: You’ve worked with a lot of artists over the years. It must be hard to pick, but do you have any favorites?

GM: Well, not exactly. I’ve been so lucky to work with so many great songwriters as a record producer. From Lucinda Williams, to Ray Wylie Hubbard, to Robert Earl Keen, and on and on. So I’m just incredibly lucky. And every record I make is my favorite record, you know? I think each record I make is better than all the ones before it. It’s just...I have a great job. I love my job.

AV: Tell me about Rootball Studio, where you do a lot of your work.

GM: It’s in my house. It’s great, you know? I love working at home. I’ve got drums in the living room, and I’ve got a bedroom that’s the control room, and another bedroom that’s like the vocal booth—but it has a bed in it. It’s not so much a recording studio as it is some recording equipment—some microphones and pre-amps. You can follow the wires from the living room to the control bedroom. But it feels really good in there. People don’t feel like they’re under the pressure of being in the studio. It’s relaxed and we have a lot of fun. Every project I do is just really fun, and I can wake up every morning feeling like I can’t wait to start working.

AV: How far are you outside of Austin?

GM: It used to be a half an hour. Now it can be forty minutes to an hour. Austin is a boom town.

AV: Who have you been working with lately there?

GM: I think I did five or six records just in this last year. I did Slaid Cleaves’s record. Romi Mayes, from Winnipeg. A woman named Betty Soo. She’s really great. And I did a band from Austin called Porterdavis. One word. And I’ve been working on a Ray Wylie Hubbard record, and my record, and I got a couple more projects in mind that I wanna get to when I get home. So I’ve been completely busy between the playing and the studio.

AV: Do you have a stack of songs for a new record?

GM: You know, I’ve got a stack of songs, but probably not enough for a record. I’m pretty close but it’s too early to start that. But my last record, which was Diamonds to Dust, I went in there and took the vocals off and just listened to it, thinking about putting it in films. So then, in place of the vocals, I added some sounds. Some atmosphere. Some samples of monks chanting, and odd, weird ambiences. I pressed it up. And people really like it. [laughs] It’s an instrumental record, and I call it Birth to Boneyard. I got four songs placed in a film from that. So now I want to do that to my current record Last Exit to Happyland. ‘Cause it was so easy and so fun, why shouldn’t I do that to every record? I know people who do yoga to it. Or people put it on at parties and there’s not some whiny singer-songwriter wailin’ around, you know?

AV: How’d you get your songs placed in the film?

GM: It’s a documentary, made in Austin, called Happiness Is. They interview a bunch of people including Willie Nelson and the Dalai Lama about what happiness means to them. Troy Campbell, who’s a friend of mine from Austin, we wrote some songs together and he’s sort of been working in film a lot, so he got the songs placed in there.

AV: Lucinda. Whatever happened with that, when you guys stopped working together. Is that something you don’t like talking about?

GM: Oh, you know, I don’t mind talkin’ about it. I mean, I could tell some stories, but that wouldn’t serve anybody, really. Umm, it’s kinda like a marriage. When there’s a divorce, you know? It can be ugly. And it kinda was. (pause) And it didn’t have to be, and it doesn’t have to be. But she kinda made it that way, I stepped away. Forever. So...yeah.

AV: I can remember at the time hearing a near-finished version of her record you’d been working on at the time of your split (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road).

GM: Yeah, that version was 90 percent, or more than 90 percent finished...

AV: And I thought it sounded great. Then I heard the final version that got released, and thought, “What the Hell?”

GM: Yeah, I can’t listen to that album. I like the version I did better.

AV: I guess there are a million stories behind the scenes.

GM: Well, she wasn’t feeling very good about herself at the time. And just transferring guilt here and there...and just wound up bagging the record. I think it was a mistake.

AV: During the course of your career, the music business has changed quite a bit. Do you have any observations on how it’s changed? Is there anything good or bad about it?

GM: The digital recording revolution made it so that anyone can make an album. It used to be that in order to make a record you had to get a record deal—which was kinda like getting a license to make a record. You had to be signed by a label or else you couldn’t put a record out. Now anyone can put a record out, which means there are 50,000 records coming out every year. 49,900 of ‘em are like, awful, you know? But at the same time, I really like the fact that anyone can do that. Then your job is to make yours somehow better than those 49,900. So my take on it is that it’s a really great time for music. There’s more music being made, good and bad, but I think there’s more great music being made than ever before.

AV: Because there’s been this democratization...

GM: You just need to have something to say. And the labels, they’re all going away now. They’re quaking in their boots. With good reason.

AV: Do you handle all your publishing?

GM: I go through Bug Publishing. But now, I’m the label, on my new records. Which means I know how many I’ve sold—which I never have known before.

AV: You don’t even have to get a lawyer involved.

GM: No. You know, I could get a lawyer and sue myself. [laughs] It’s a lot of work. I mean, I didn’t even know how much work it was gonna be—but—I think it’s really great, because I’m in charge. But it involves boxing and shipping records to stores, going to the post office every day, lots and lots of online work. I actually had to get an assistant to help me do all that stuff. But I don’t know what a label could do for me that I can’t do by myself.

Morlix brings it all back home for one night only at 7:30pm on Tuesday, September 22, at the Sportsmen’s Tavern, 326 Amherst Street. Limited number of tickets available at the club. (874-7734) $10

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