Charles Bowden is the front man for alt-country group Other Desert Cities. A veteran of the independent music scene for some time and a noted photographer, Bowden shares his thoughts on his artistic expressions. His most recent release for Other Desert Cities, 2006’s haunting “On The Verge Of Collapsing”, was a highly lauded and deeply personal release for Bowden, and below he reveals more about the personal and creative process he underwent to release such poignant music.
Who is C. Charles Bowden, and how did he get his start in music?
Well, currently a 31yr old dude living in Seattle Washington doing freelance photography for a job and playing a hint of music here and there.
I started taking piano lesson in 4-5th grade from a color blind Beatles fanatic named Mr. Zhan. I just remember he had these huge bug eyes and crazy colored sneakers, but a great teacher to say the least.
From there it was onto drums in middle school. The first real band I was in was during high school with Matt Wignall (Havalina – currently Matt Death and the New Intellectuals). I was friends with his younger sister in high school, way back in 1990-1993, and all I remember Matt was the coolest, craziest, cat ever. He had this band called 063 WGG (which he named after the license plate to his old orange VW bug). We played for about a year, nothing really came of it, shortly after was a quick run with ‘Sid and the Smooth Tones’. He still remains a very close friend of mine to this day.
Through the first couple years in high school, even in 8th grade, it was all about straight edge Hardcore. Going to shows way out yonder to see bands every weekend with our baggy clothes and X’s. I remember going to see Rage Against the Machines first show when they had demo tapes, yes cassette tapes, with a matchstick attached to it. Funny.
Emission was the next adventure in the beginning of ‘emo’, whatever that means. It was more of a Quicksand, Sensefield type of thing. By then my musical taste had leaned into other avenues: Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Sebadoh, Superchunk, etc.
During the midst of Emission, some of my close friends were being recruited into the Tooth and Nail hardcore band Focused. I was around 19 or 20 I was asked to play drums for them and go on a 6-week tour. It wasn’t necessarily the music I was fond of, more the experience to see the country, play music, and hang out with my friends all at the same time. The next summer it was 1 more record with them and many great shows.
I had always fiddled around with this old Spanish guitar I found in my closet. I taught myself some tunes, asked a LOT of questions from friends who played, and constantly watched and listened to other musicians. I never did consider myself a ‘real’ drummer. So I easily traded in my drums for a guitar.
The birth of The Merbabies came in ‘96 to the end of ’97 and a couple of records on Matt Wignall’s old label Jackson Rubio records.
How did Other Desert Cities form, and what’s the story behind the name and approach to music in the band?
I dove head first into some twang, alt country, and others somewhere along the line. Neil Young, Dylan, Wilco, The Byrds, Dinosaur Jr., Elliot Smith, Flying Burrito Bros., Donovan, etc., are all huge influences still and the music I think reflect it.
My grandfather built a house in the Mojave Desert just outside of Yucca Valley near Joshua Tree in the late 60’s. My entire life I’ve been going out there exploring the desert terrain and after he died, I started to have these trips out there with a bunch of my guy friends. Just to hang out, drink beer and be guys. A LOT of great memories.
On one trip out my friend Mark was driving and mumbled underneath his breath as we drove underneath the overhanging freeway sign that read ‘other Desert Cities’. Just hearing it that one time I knew that was the name for the next project I wanted to do.
How did you link up with Jeff Cloud and Velvet BluemMusic? What is it like to work with Cloud?
I met Cloud somewhere along the early years with the SF59 crew. Cloud was interested in putting out The Merbabies, both Velvet Blue Music and Jackson Rubio started about the same time, but I just simply knew Wignall better so we went with Jackson Rubio.
As Cloud and I talked more and more it seemed the next thing for me to was do Other Desert Cities and have him put it out. All I could ask for was for someone to pay for an album, and Cloud is incredibly laid back and patient enough to let me do whatever I want musically and artistically with the layouts and stuff. Everything is oral agreements, no contracts or anything too fancy.
You are known as a photographer, on top of your music career. Do the two disciplines ever meet for you? If so, how does your music and photography interplay?
I’m glad I’m known as a photographer and some sort of meatball.
All the photography in the ODC layouts I did. I constantly try and do both consistently because it’s really important for me to do something creative everyday. I believe it’s an essential part of what makes me, me. It’s part of who I am as a person. If I don’t do those things, part of myself seems to get stifled and choked up. I do it for my health, to stay alive.
What is your approach to songwriting, both musically and lyrically?
Musically I’m always fiddling around with parts of songs. Usually I sit and write the lyrics and music all at the same time. I try and tell stories of life experience the way I perceived it at the time.
Many times I’ll write a couple of versus and then look at it and think – what am I trying to say here? Does this make any sense? And then think – it doesn’t matter anyhow, just write what you want to write.
Your most recent disc, last year’s “On The Verge of Collapsing”, seemed to be a disc that took forever to hit the shelves. What is the story behind the recording and production of this disc that caused it to take so long?
I was afraid you’d ask that. Well, completely honest is something I’ve learned to be in the last 3 years, so that’s what I’ll be.
I got married in 2001 and in 2004 when we were toward the end of recording ‘On The Verge of Collapsing’, that’s exactly where my marriage was. The disintegration of my marriage was an incredibly dark time in my life as we were just going through the motions. My wife told me she was leaving me when around 90% of the recording was done. My life completely stopped and turned upside-down.
It was by far the most difficult, wretched, painful, complicated time I have ever endured and I’m surprised I made it sometimes. I don’t think there are really words to explain it, but it’s something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. My life was a mess.
The record that was a fictional story about a man’s wife dying had become my own personal metaphorical story. Except that I think actual death would be easier to comprehend and get through. A funeral without a corpse is something to reckon with.
I had no choice but to lay down everything and put 110% into trying to pursue a fleeting wife, but to no avail. 6 months later I finished up the recording for my own sanity, what was left of it, and a year after that I was loading up all my belongings in the back of my truck and moving to up to Seattle. By the time the artwork came through and everything came together, about 2 years had gone by.
There are a lot of starkly personal feelings/confessions on “On the Verge of Collapsing”. What does it feel like knowing that you’ve shared such intimate and honest feelings with complete strangers (music listeners)?
Intimacy is something of a new concept for me. The last 3 years have been such a tremendous time of growth and the last 2 up hear in Seattle have been beautifully challenging.
As far as sharing my life with strangers and what it feels like? It feels honest. It feels like I’m not hiding anymore. It feels like for the first time in life music means more than just sounds to me. It feels all right to say – I know what it’s like when the shit hits the fan and God is seemingly nowhere to be found. It feels healthy. It feels like I’m where I’m supposed to be. It feels purposeful.
Going along with this theme of honestly and transparency, through the lyrics of certain songs on “On the Verge of Collapsing”, there are obvious reference to Christian imagery. Keeping the space open that these references might be more for the character on the CD than for C. Charles Bowden (or not), what is the appeal of Christianity for you, that you’d make it such an integral part of the story on the CD? What does faith look like for you, and how does it impact your music?
I think Christ cannot not be a part of my creative process, myself being a part of the people of God. God is whether I believe it or not, He has chosen me. Yet, at the same time I do have choices to make in life.
During the recording and in my marriage, I made very unhealthy choices, hiding in bars and alcohol, other people, music, whatever I chose to escape my painful reality and used to self-medicate with. People do it all the time with sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, whatever.
It doesn’t mean I didn’t believe it in my head, just not in my heart, with my life, with my actions. That’s where I think a lot of people get mixed up in the church. Some folks think being a follower of Christ is merely a one day a week sit down in a church for an hour event. Yet I have learned that it’s something I have to choose to surrender to everyday all the time. It’s the difference between being a ‘hearer’ of the gospel and a ‘doer’ of the gospel. And by no means do I want to give the illusion that I have it all figured out or something, like I said it’s a daily choice for me that is anything but perfect.
After my divorce I just couldn’t do life my way anymore because it simply didn’t work, I had to do it God’s way.
Your music at times feels like a modern reworking of a very classic/throw-back kind of sound. Who are some of the artists and/or records that have inspired you?
Like I stated up a few questions, Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr., Wilco, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Damien Jurado, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, Gillian Welch, Sebadoh, those types of people and bands.
What is in the future for C. Charles Bowden and Other Desert Cities?
I just hope I can keep doing what I love which is taking photographs and making music. I have plenty of tunes stored up for another record hopefully. And after putting music on the backburner for a few years, I’m thinking it’s time to get it back in gear and possibly hit the road.
Any other comments?
photography:contact – http://www.ccharlesbowden.com