FROM STEINBECK
TO SWEET VERMOUTH:
LUKE SPURR ALLEN

Adrienne Battistella

photo Adrienne Battistella

Luke Spurr Allen has been a staple of the New Orleans music scene for two decades now, best known for his work with Happy Talk—a band that gained much loyalty from fans for being one of the few roots-framed rock groups to gig in town in the early, dark days after Katrina. And yet, it’s been seven years since he’s put out an album. Between having a child and buying into Siberia Bar with his wife Meghann, those seven years, he says, have flown by. That all changes this month with the release of Pothole Heart, a long, winding road of thoughtful, dark, and funny songwriting featuring some of New Orleans’ brightest musical talents, including Happy Talk alums Bailey Smith, Alex McMurray, Steve Calandra, Mike Andrepont, and Casey McAllister; alongside Helen Gillet, Meschiya Lake, Tasche De La Rocha, Washboard Chaz, and more. We sat down to talk about recurrent themes in his writing and the ways in which his years as a bartender have influenced his thoughts on the human condition

Tell me about growing up in California.
I’m from Salinas, California, which is the lettuce capital of the world and the home of John Steinbeck. That’s what it’s known for. These days it’s better known as a marijuana mecca. I grew up in kind of a rural area between Salinas and Monterey. My dad was in advertising and my mom was a school teacher.

Were there other musicians in your family?
Well, my dad played a little piano. At church on Sundays I’d stand between [my parents] and my dad would sing kind of dramatically and my mother would sing off-key. I’d be right between them and it would drive me absolutely batty. And then three siblings: my sister Dawn is a musician; she plays some bass now but used to play clarinet and bassoon, a double reed kind of gal. And my sister Sylvia gave me my first guitar; she plays a little bit. I guess I showed some interest so she gave one to me. I’d played some trumpet and piano before that. I didn’t get serious about playing guitar until I was in college. But I had always been writing since I was really little, writing stories. Or writing songs long before I played any instruments, like rhyming couplets—that came right away, almost in an obsessive sort of way that was sort of annoying to me and probably for the people around me. [laughs]

To me, that whole area seems kind of Steinbeck-esque. Steinbeckian?
Ha, sure. There’s a Steinbeck book called Pastures of Heaven about exactly where I’m from, which is this little canyon between Salinas and Monterey which, according to him, was cursed. And there’s a very small country school featured in it; I went to that little school. So the canyon was supposedly cursed by bad luck, depression, fate— you know, so much of Steinbeck’s work has that element. The shadow of redemption that never comes full circle to make people happy again. [laughs] It was a really beautiful place to grow up… I was the youngest and had a lot of time by myself, with woods and woods and woods behind the house. And I’d go out with the dogs, just me. Sometimes with my friends too, but a lot of times I’d spend days by myself. A lot of imagination, a lot of making up games by myself and being in the woods and oak trees and hawks and sage and poison oak, which I never got but everyone else did. [laughs]

The shadow of redemption… that’s something that obviously features very prominently in your songwriting. Would you say you’re fatalistic?
Oh, I’m getting much better now but yeah, pretty bad. I mean, I was a pretty seriously depressed kid and I would say I was suicidal for a long time when I was younger. I think many people are at that age, and I went through a pretty rough spot with that. And I always tended to focus on darker things in my early writing when I was a kid, but my mom’s line, “you were such a happy baby…”

Don’t they always say that?
Ha, yes. And I was always drawn to darker things, maybe because they were easier to write, because I definitely think they are easier to write. But I always tried to have things be funny, too, at the same time, you know. When I was a teenager I was reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, as many kids that age do—a lot of dry, dark, really funny stuff. Joseph Heller, too.

Your songs definitely combine dark and comedic in an interesting way.
Yeah, balance is important.

You’ve talked a lot in past interviews about how you came to New Orleans by mistake.
Right. Finished school in ’93, went up to Alaska, worked up there in cannery work and logging, got home, paid off some loans, bought a car, and just kind of went traveling and ended up here. I thought I was gonna end up in New Mexico. I was in a really weird state of mind where I thought I was being guided, kind of, but New Mexico didn’t appeal to me so I just sort of stayed on 10 and headed here. I had one friend who I went to school with in Santa Cruz who was from here, but he wasn’t here when I got here. I first stayed in a hotel—

Photo: Zach Smith

On Airline, right? Talk about cursed places, that’s all very Steinbeck! And I don’t think it’s changed much since the Carlos Marcello days, either.
It definitely hasn’t! And actually the hotel I stayed at was the same one where the Jimmy Swaggart prostitute scandal happened. It was an interesting introduction to New Orleans. And then I got a job in construction working for this crazy guy; that ended badly. But at the same time my old friend from school who was from here moved back and I moved in with him Uptown by Race and Magazine—still to this day that’s the only time I’ve ever lived Uptown. And then of course ended up in the Bywater on Independence Street… that was 1994 and a very different time.

What are your thoughts about the evolution of the Bywater in the last few decades?
Oh man. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’ve basically lived in the Bywater for 20 years; I’ve owned a house there for the last 10. I lived on the same block as Elizabeth’s, so obviously there were always tourists, but suddenly there were three Airbnbs on the same block and I started getting pretty resentful about that. And a bunch of people that were from the coasts traipsing around as if New Orleans were Disneyland on acid and they could do whatever they wished—that didn’t sit well with me. Bywater was always kind of a tough place, at least back in the early ‘90s; it was a different scene back then. And I started feeling resentment about that. We ended up selling our house and buying in Holy Cross but man, that bridge has been wearing me down… I’ve been missing the closeness and the familiarity of the Bywater lately. Or maybe what it used to be is what I miss most. Hard to say. But Holy Cross is beautiful. It feels like the country; there’s space and time to think and move. And I have a dog and I can just walk straight to the river. And there are so many country musicians living down there these days, and I book shows for Siberia, so I’ve come upon so many musicians that way.

So when did you first start working at Circle Bar? Lots of people know you best from those days.
Maybe 2001? Right around then. I had several friends working there and my band had already played there. I bartended for a long time (I’m still bartending). I was a bartender at Angeli over on Decatur; I was a bouncer at the Abbey for a while, and then picked up shifts there. And then Circle Bar. And of course these days I’m at Siberia.

How has bartending influenced how you think and write?
Stories, stories, stories galore. It’s a strange thing, being in a party environment but also having to be super vigilant, constantly listening and watching to see if someone needs something or if there’s a problem. So I guess my beacon is up while I’m working for a long time; I’m constantly paying attention to other people and overhearing stories and also I guess after a while getting to be a pretty good read on people. The new record has a song called “Sweet Vermouth” which I like to say took me the better part of two decades to write… it’s like my bartending manifesto… it’s about a guy who’s in a bar, or maybe he’s at a bar or maybe he’s in hell—you don’t know. But he’s been there forever and there are a bunch of ghosts sitting with him and he’s thinking he’ll never get out of there alive.

Has bartending for so long changed your thoughts about the human condition?
No, but it’s reaffirmed them. An old friend of mine shot himself last week. And that has not been anything unique. And he was someone that I knew from the bars back then. And I guess that’s OK, that’s the way he chose to go. People moved here—I think it’s changed now—but for a long time this was sort of the last stop for a lot of broken folk—this city in particular. You could move here with nothing, get a job in the service industry almost immediately, and find a place to live that was ridiculously cheap really quickly. And so you have these damaged people, but there’s a lot of comfort being around other damaged people and you know, self-medicating. Heroin was cheap, coke was cheap, the booze was cheap. And there was no judgment if you were at The Hideout for 24 hours and saw the sun come up through the flaps twice—that was all right. And some people passed through that. I was jus t at an Easter party with a lot of other friends who’d been there right with me, who have moved past that, grown up, had kids—all that—and these are people that I used to run hard with, right? And most of them are OK. And they have kids, and the kids are gonna be OK. But then there’s a whole bunch of other people who died when we were pretty young. There’s others that never got their shit together who are dying now in their late 40s and early 50s, because if you push your body that far for that many years, you don’t get to live to 80 years old. You just don’t. And that’s OK. And there are others, like my friend, who have just decided to end it. And that’s OK, too. But things have changed. This is still a hard place but maybe it’s slightly better now. The bar industry has definitely suffered. [laughs]

It’s a strange thing, being in a party environment but also having to be super vigilant.

That definitely all seems to be true.
Yep. More money, maybe more people with better educations moving here. Back when I was coming up here, serious drinking was just the way you got from day to day. And of course, it probably also has to do with me getting older and supposedly wiser and settling down, but there is a cultural aspect of brokenness that is less so now than it used to be. Like, through the course of a day, during a shift and then after a shift til the sun came up, I would drink maybe 10, 12 shots of whiskey and beer like it was water. Constantly thought nothing of it. These days I have maybe three, four drinks total and that’s it. It’s different now. And that’s good. I don’t enjoy watching the crash anymore. I don’t. I have clear eyes now, or at least clearer. And I see people around me who are wrecking themselves and they stand out now, whereas perhaps they didn’t used to. Or at least not nearly as much. It’s harder to find someone to share a dark day with than it used to be. Again, not saying that’s bad, it’s just a difference. A change over place and time. But it’s New Orleans at the end of the day. There will always be people running hard here.

Photo: Shawn McKee

Photo: Shawn McKee

So the quintessential question, which countless writers have struggled with, is whether the muse is harder to find when your eyes are clear.
Well, I’ll tell you that there’s way more focus and discipline now. Mark Bingham, who ran Piety Records and produced my second and third record with Happy Talk, told me when he found out I was having a kid, “Now is the time you need to be disciplined in your art. You need to set times, work on songs between 4 and 6 p.m. You can’t wait for the muse to arrive and put her arm around you and whisper in your ear.” And he’s right. I haven’t released a record in seven years because five years ago, within a week I bought into part ownership at Siberia and found ut my wife was pregnant. So these two things completely took over everything in my life. I quit smoking cigarettes, cut back on drinking, and suddenly all my time was back. And also I have plenty of debauchery and screwed up things and dark things and funny things that I’m actually remembering better now, now that my head is clear. And I’ve got days and days and days of stories to tell and write about. And a little space and a little time is really good for writing. And you know, people worried about losing it once they stop partying: man, that’s not the thing. That’s not the thing. You’re carrying heavy weights around your neck that you don’t need. The thing that makes you numb is not going to write the song for you. You’re going to write the song. And you’re basically shoving it through this clumsy filter that you don’t need.

There’s a British naturalist writer I love, Tom Cox, who said something like, “the best thing I can say about becoming a good writer is to have some people treat you poorly and to get older.” I really love that.
Man. That is so true.

Mark Bingham told me when he found out I was having a kid, “Now is the time you need to be disciplined in your art. You need to set times, work on songs between 4 and 6 p.m. You can’t wait for the muse to arrive and put her arm around you and whisper in your ear.”

So tell me about the little one! Has having a child changed the kinds of songs you write? Do you think about him listening to your songs when he’s 15 years old, 25?
He’s been around for the writing of the whole new record. The title track, “Pothole Heart,” he knows that song by heart. [laughs] As for when he’s older, hmmm. You know, I think he’ll have insights into me that I never was able to have into my father… insights that my father was never able to show. And that’s a big thing. A heavy thing. But it’s really good. And my songs are more of a cautionary tale than a map to chaos. My wife said something really poignant to me the other day; she said, “You know, you don’t have to write all these sad songs.” And yeah, maybe that’s not the best thing to show my child; I do think about that. But I have struggled with depression, and there’s a chance that he will too. We pass these things down. But I’m OK with all of it. I would explain anything he asked me to explain. And the songs are funny enough; it’s all gonna be OK. And there’s kids around me everywhere these days; we’re all having kids and chances are they’ll be playing their own music in their own bands one day. Maybe that’ll help him understand.

Luke Allen will be performing with the Luke Allen Trio at Chazfest on May 3rd (3020 St. Claude Ave.), at Euclid Records on May 13th (with Happy Talk Band); and for the official release of Pothole Heart on May 20th at Siberia, also with Happy Talk Band. For more info, check out happytalkband.com.

 

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