(Last) Song of the Month: Exuma and When Friends Turn You On to New Music

October 31, 2013

I’m told that at some point, usually around age 30 or sometimes later, a great many people basically stop seeking out new music. They circle back around to the same old albums, their favorite albums – the albums of their childhood, or of some time when they were happiest.  Their iTunes library (if they have one) may slowly grow, but the amount of records they actually listen to contracts. It circles around the same twenty records, and then fifteen, and then maybe ten. They might occasionally be curious about their favorite band from fifteen years ago putting out a new record, or doing an overpriced reunion tour, but mostly they’re indifferent or even hostile towards the idea of new music. And then – and I’m scared to tell you this, because I don’t want to believe such a thing could be true – it’s said that somewhere out there are people who have actually stopped listening to music.

You have to fight this, because not being interested in new sounds is a symptom of something larger and scarier: your curiosity and enthusiasm for life itself drying up. Something elastic and passionate inside you is starting to become rigid, static, numbed, and you have to fight it. With a determined and devoted program. I truly believe this.

I’m not trying to brag when I say that I actually can’t imagine feeling this way about music. If anything, I feel the opposite way, and sometimes I feel embarrassed about it. When I go to meet friends at a bar, the first thing I want to talk about is the music I was listening to on the walk there. It’s a record I thought I’d hate, but I’m starting to like it! It’s an album from a favorite artist, but from a part of their career that I’d written off, and it’s surprisingly good! It’s something a friend told me to listen to, told me I’d love, and I hate it, I hate it so much that now I’m starting to question the friendship. Hey, where are you going? My bar-mate’s eyes glaze over, and eventually they tell me they have to run to the bathroom. Okay so maybe this is a bad example, but the point is that I feel that I’m lucky enough to have kept this passion for hearing new stuff alive.

The friendship aspect of music – I guess you’d call it the “social” aspect of music fandom except that word is now so loaded with obnoxious accidental second meanings and unfair associations – is the part I miss the most. I miss passing music around with my friends on a daily basis. I miss making mixes for people. There’s a cultural stereotype we have – the guy making a mix for a girl – but most of the mixes I ever made in my life were for men, gawky music dorks like me, boys who talked about producers and recording gear the way the more popular guys talked about sports statistics. I’d even make artwork and everything – I’d collage together whatever paper scraps and photos were around and give my mixes self-important titles and grand overarching themes. I was never trying to impress a girl, or not that I can particularly remember, and though I did occasionally make mixes for girls they were never part of a romantic campaign. I just wanted to share that rush of new (to me) music. And now that I’m an adult I don’t do it as much, even though I want to. I feel awkward about it. It feels like the overture to something more, not just “you would like this band.” It feels like you’re handing your heart over to someone, and that’s something adults are more cautious about doing. But I still want to make mixes, and I still want people to give them to me. I want to find the one person with whom I can sit among a large party of friends and talk about Laura Nyro and watch everyone in the room go, “Oh, they’re over there talking about something boring,” and stop listening to us.

Because of this, I treasure my relationships with the small handful of people I still feel comfortable freely exchanging music with, the people with whom I feel comfortable sharing that gush of dorky enthusiasm. Jonathan from Shearwater is one of those people, always pawning his favorite music off on me, always receptive to a text from me at 3 AM ordering him to record a song that sounds like “Third Uncle,” always sending me music-critic-y emails with passages that say stuff like

And his big hit, the bright, modest, masculine “I Can Help.” Also, I strongly recommend the song “P.M.S. (Post Mortem Sickness)”, which I can’t find on Youtube, but I think chorus goes, “Why can’t I get out of your range? / Physically, mentally, spiritually?” And the song title alone surely ranks up there with Exuma’s “Paul Simon Nontooth.”

He’s talking about Billy Swan here, but I want to talk about Exuma, because I heard about Exuma from Jonathan years ago when he burned his self-titled 1970 debut onto a CDR in a giant handful of other burned CDRs, with all sorts of different music scattered between all of them, from people, mostly, who were dead. I took the CDs back to my hotel room (I was in Austin at the time and filming the video for “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe”) and I looked up Exuma online and saw an unsettling painting, a tight close-up of a kind of contorted and wooden-looking face peering out of the dark, with the word EXUMA scratched in pink on the face’s forehead, kind of like it was carved there. The music inside matched the face. Inside I heard screaming and yelling, wolves howling at the moon, a chorus of frogs chirping, insistent and forceful acoustic guitar, and lots and lots of rattling bells. The first song was about some kind of witch doctor. The second song was heartstopping – a beautiful delicate acoustic guitar figure pulverized by a bass drum so huge the entire song gasped with compression when it came in – with the singer praying to a Voudoun god, praying to that god to punish slave traders by making their consciousnesses stay in their rotting bodies after they’re dead.  By the end of the song, the singer is wailing, practically choking for air, surrounded by a chorus of men’s moans. The third song was about zombies rising to devour the living, and it was both pulpy and goofy like a horror movie and urgently scary like a news report. The fifth song, “Séance in the Sixth Fret,” wasn’t a song at all but seemed to be an actual séance.

There was something about the Exuma record that was so elemental and threatening – so alive and risky and miraculously non-ridiculous though it flirted with ridiculousness in every possible way – that it totally re-aligned my tastes for a little while there. I felt about it similarly to the way I’d felt about the Incredible String Band when I was in high school, that this guy truly believed that music has magical powers, and his own music seemed to be some kind of proof of it. I had just come from the poppiest record my band had made, and I needed a break from poppiness, from pleasantness, and Exuma seemed like he knew a way out. Working on the Roky Erickson album made me even more convinced to feel free in my own work, to try to push my music more into the spirit world. Along with a small handful of other albums, Exuma’s debut was on repeat constantly while making I Am Very Far. I wanted the songs to feel like that – big, wooly, threatening, shoving you backwards.

There’s a backstory to Exuma, of course. His real name was Tony McKay. He moved to New York City from the Bahamas, and was active in the 60s Greenwich Village folk scene, embracing the Voudoun and Obeah magic traditions of the West Indies. He made two records at Mercury before being dropped by the label, but continued making records for the rest of his life. That painting of his debut on the front was by him. I’m not sure how much of Exuma was untrammeled personality and how much was carefully cultivated persona, but I think in most of these cases there is more thought and care than you’d expect. There seemed to be something canny and thoughtful about Exuma, like he’d figured out how to go crazy while staying sane. In any case, he was what I needed right at that second in my life. I needed someone wild-eyed and slightly towering, who had enough strength to kick open some kind of inner door to let new light in. I’m glad someone had the foresight to trap him inside that CD long enough for him to get the door open.

Of course, your tastes change, and what you want to hear as a listener and what you want to do as an artist is something that hopefully moves forward. For me, I often come back to the same recordings later but find myself in a different place when I return – it’s not so much like I’ve come full circle as it is I went in an outward a spiral, orbiting around but never in the exact same position as before. After making a record that was violent and dark and scary, I got some of that stuff out of my system and wanted to make a record that was friendly and glided along. Once I’m done gliding I’ll go somewhere else probably. But I’ve always got Exuma hanging around in the back of my skull now, thanks to Jonathan, occasionally rattling some chains or moaning at me. It’s Halloween, so I feel like there’s no better time to play some of this stuff for you, even if it means doing “First Song of the Month” a day early. I’ll throw in a few songs so you can hear the range. You should really get the whole album though. A lot of what’s on it is scarier than most of what passes for metal, more masculine and earthy than any other folk, more violent than soul, and a great example of a record that was made in a legit studio but that sounds like it was recorded in a barn during a full moon. Fire and brimstone. The teeth of a frog and the tail of a goat. Zombies walking in the broad daylight!



Little Beaver and Why Partying is Important
Sparks and Semen and Transcendence
The Baptist Generals and Having a Song to Protect You
No One Can Ever Call George Jones Mr. Fool No More
Van Morrison Does Middle Age Right

Alice Swoboda and By the Way They Actually Can Take Away Your Dignity


Posted in: New Pieces | Tags: ,


9 Responses to “(Last) Song of the Month: Exuma and When Friends Turn You On to New Music”

  1. Laura

    I make mixes for my mom. She thinks I’m freaking brilliant. I reawakened her love of Harry Nilsson and I feel pretty good about that. I also find out things like, “That fiddle sounds whiney, turn it off” and that Mom will unabashedly listen to the same song 9 times in a row because, “This is my favorite song on the whole CD. Make me another one with more of this on it.”

    • Laura

      P.S. This song of the month may find it’s way into my mom’s car ’cause this is sweet and I think I’m gonna be listening to it all day now…

  2. Megan

    Will, you’re totally right! Mixes were ways that my friends and I shared not only new music, but also feelings and memories of the ridiculous, vulnerable, and innocent moments of growing up. I remember waiting for that certain song to play on 92 Q – as it was called in the late ’80’s – in Cleveland OH. I would have the tape player ready to record. I still have one of those mix tapes. It’s funny to listen to all the starting and stopping. I still make mixes (CDs now) for the people I love (my family and friends). Not romantic. Just filled with songs that delight my soul… your music has made a mark on very many of my mixes.

    As for your (Last) song of the month, this month, Exuma, would be a surprise to get on a mix tape…it kind of reminds me of a time that my sister and I collaborated on a cd for my mom’s birthday – we put Rusted Root on it – and she made some comment about why the guys were yodeling. I suspect she might ask about the howling if I put Exuma on a cd for her. We would laugh and continue listening…but over time, that song would become part of the liquid that flowed through our car stereos and became part of our memories of whatever we were doing when we listened the first time we heard it! Now you’re inspiring me to make a mix!

    Thanks for mixin’ it up for us this month! Can’t wait ’til your next first! Namaste!

  3. Megan

    And one more thing…I feel so sad for the people who unplug from their true selves and give up listening to music. I do know some of those people… they gave it up for time…tough times have the power to squash creativity…but it always seems to find it’s way back. It is that liquid love in the form of sound that fills even the hollowest of souls!

  4. Aaron

    Mr Sheff.
    I am an old diehard Dylan fan amongst many others and after educating my kids about quality music artists, they have returned the favour. Decembrists, Death Cab, a renewed enthusiasm for Radiohead, Tinpan Orange and much more. But I can’t wait to see Okkervil River again in Perth. My family and I will be there. Thanks for coming back.

  5. Tony

    Hi will, just wanted to thank you. You so often inspire me with your music but I was feeling really numb and uncreative but listening to this album has woken me up.
    Kind regards, Tony.

  6. John R

    I turn 31 in a little over a month and I’m definitely one of these new (to me) music victims you speak of. I noticed it happening and lamented it on occasion, but eventually just kind of shrugged and thought, “I guess this is just something that happens.” I thought waning interest in new music was only natural. But I’ll tell you, happening upon your songs of the month has me feeling more excited than I’ve been in awhile. Of course this excitement is in the moment and the jury’s out on whether it will continue. But more important than how I feel about what you’ve shared is how passionately and personally you write about it. Before even listening to the Rock*A*Teens’ songs you posted, I was excited to give them a spin because of *how* you wrote about them. I haven’t felt that way about a lot of the music writing I’ve read of late. I think if there were more of that kind of personal writing in conjunction with friends being as anxious to share new things as they were when we were younger, I may never have fallen into that repetitive listening trap.

    So thanks a lot and please keep this up. It’s outstanding.

  7. Alissa

    I wrote about this article for an admission essay for grad school. And I got in, so thanks!

  8. Colleen

    Saw you play this Friday Sept 16 in Montreal. Heard a crazy song in the preshow that was so good it made me take out my phone and download Shazam to find it. It was Obeah Man and I’ve been listening to nothing since all weekend. Today, I’m Googling around trying to learn more abotu Exuma, found a link to this blog, started reading without looking at the web address. Suddenly realize it’s you writing! Music is magic. (Also, thanks for a great show.)

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