I got to talk on the phone with Morgan Christopher Geer, the man behind Drunken Prayer, a band from Portland, OR, which is half way through a two-and-half-month-long tour. Their tour will finish on August 3, in Ashville NC, where Morgan is originally from, and I will have the chance to catch their performance at the Echo in Los Angeles, on August 19.
Drunken Prayer’s music mixes folk, blues, country and soul, and Morgan Geer has been compared to Warren Zevon by the Portland Mercury – and we will get to this in the interview – but I asked him first how he would describe more precisely the sound of his band. ‘It touches on a lot of blues, country, jazz, folk and New-Orleans-style thrown in there too', he answered, 'As much as I like the term Americana, it’s pretty broad reaching, you can call pretty much everything Americana, but we are kind of a combo of American styles of music’.
Since I had even read the term ‘folk-noir’, I asked him about it, and he seemed to agree. ‘I will go with that, the overall feel of everything does kind of have a noir aspect to the songs’.
Morgan Geer explained that his taste for this sort of music comes from his childhood, his mother was a folk/blues singer, and her dad (like his father) was a jazz musician who also played Dixieland. This kind of music has been around him since he was born, and came naturally, ‘I didn’t find it as much as it found me’, he said. But the difficulty is to bring something new to an old genre, and Geer thinks he manages to do so, as he is ‘not trying to sound like anything’. He doesn’t think he wears his influences on his sleeve very much, and is not particularly worried about sounding particularly one way or another at all, ‘I think that helps to produce a unique sound’, he added.
He seems to find inspiration everywhere, as the stories he tells through his songs simply come from things that are going on around him, whether they are conversations or stories he reads on newspaper articles, or a particular poignant scene happening at a street corner that would otherwise go unnoticed, ‘the kind of things you might normally pass over and not notice, the little beautiful things and sometimes not that beautiful’, he explained.
Drunken Prayer are currently touring to support their last album, ‘Into the Missionfield’, that Geer describes as really orchestrated, with a lot of musicians on it, ‘I took the time to record it’ he said. Living in Portland obviously gives him the opportunity to collaborate with a lot of great musicians and makes a lot of big studios at his disposal, ‘I took advantage of that, I wasn’t touring at that point, so I had plenty of time on my hands, I was living in a studio too so it made it very easy’.
He moved to Portland from Ashville NC, where he grew up, about seven years ago, because he wanted to live somewhere else, in a place a little bit bigger, which would still have a reachable music scene, a good art scene and which would be politically progressive. Portland seems to be the dream city for all these things, although he didn’t consider it first. But, when he decided to visit someone over there, he really liked it and just stayed there, ‘it is a really fantastic city!’ he exclaimed, ‘There is a lot of music, the cost of living is not too high and there is a great art scene which supports itself, which is nice’.
And what about this comparison with Zevon that I keep reading about – the Portland Mercury even said he was ‘Warren Zevon's medium’! Morgan Geer seems to be amused and flattered at the same time: ‘I hadn’t really listened to him that much growing up, then I started to getting compared to him, so I figured out I should seek who this guy is! I had heard some of his greatest hits, ‘Werewolves of London’ or things like that, but I had never really got too deep until… I love him, to me it’s fantastic to be even mentioned with somebody like him, it’s pretty humbling, even it’s nowhere close! Just to even have someone thinks something like that is pretty amazing!’
When talking about inspiration, Morgan Geer first names the usual suspects, the classic artists like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, he got to listen to when he was young because his mother had a really good record collection. ‘Dylan came first when I was little’, he added, ‘We were listening to a lot of blues, and then, when I started finding stuff that I liked, I was really into Tom Waits, he was an early influence and still is. Right now I am listening to a lot of Spiritualized and Phosphorescent, I love Spiritualized, the writing the production, it is just fantastic!’
I couldn’t resist to ask his opinion about the current state of popular music, and, not surprisingly he doesn’t listen to it that much, ‘if what I listen to happens to be modern that’s just an accident, but it could be something from the 30s or 40s! But I don’t like the way modern music is produced, it is very loud and there is not a lot of ambiance and everything is kind of compressed just on the technical level, so I don’t like to listen to music that is produced that way, I prefers stuff that has a lot more dynamics in it!' But he later admitted he likes Beyonce and Rihanna, ‘they are really great!’
Although Drunken Prayer put some country flavor in the music, he doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about mainstream country music, ‘there isn’t anything that really move me', he said, 'but you can say the same thing about blues and jazz, it’s mercenary! They are not making music as much as they are making a product. It isn’t particularly inspired, it’s like they don’t mean what they say, it’s kind of an act, just like they are auditioning for America got talent or something, and it doesn’t come as genuine. Music is not a competition, if I don’t like it, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but I always appreciate when someone is genuine even if I don’t particularly care for the music. I will start to like it because I noted they mean what they say.’
Morgan Geer was in other bands before and I asked him how his current band is different from the previous ones, and it is once again a question of honesty and genuinity: ‘The whole concept behind Drunken Prayer is that I really wanted to find my own voice instead of playing some specific style or sounding like my favorite band or favorite singer’….’I wanted to make music that was just more honest and not necessarily more serious or necessarily even deep, but was uniquely mine, whereas the other groups were a lot of fun. but were kind of character pieces that you would play in a specific genera’….’the Unholy trio had more a country thing to it, we didn’t want to go too far out of that world, now I can play anything and I don’t have to worry about genera!’
However, his previous band, The Unholy Trio, recorded a cover of Public Enemy's ‘Bring the Noise’, which is definitely not a country song, but the whole thing started as a sort of joke. They were recording in the studio and they would play the Public Enemy’s song for fun because it was hilarious, but one day,… ‘We only had just 3 minutes left, we were recording uptake so we did ‘Bring the Noise’, then Bloodshot records got a hold of it and put the song on one of their compilations, and from that somebody made a video out of it! And I was not really paying that much attention to what I was doing, I had never thought I would see the light of it. I actually got an email from Chuck D a year later, I was skeptical, I had never expected to get an email from Chuck D! He wanted a copy because he liked it!'
I couldn’t let this unnoticed, ‘unholy’, ‘prayer’, plus the numerous religious references in the songs,… it is something Morgan Geer apparently likes to play with, as he enjoys these extreme themes, ‘heaven and hell’, ‘God and the devil’. ‘Bible verses and stories are really lyrical and poetic’, he added, ‘and everybody knows what we are talking about if you say you feel you’re going to hell! To me, it’s coloring, it puts a frame around the whole project of a bigger picture and pays attention to a higher kind of consciousness’.
Coming from a Catholic family, Geer says he enjoyed Christmas and Easter as a child, for the pageantry, all the velvet, the incense and the theater, ‘I am a pretty spiritual person and I understand when people talk about God and the devil, even fundamentalists, I don’t think it’s a person, I don’t think heaven is a geographical place necessarily, but I understand what they are talking about, and it’s a good metaphor!’
Drunken Prayer are currently on tour, they have a vinyl coming out, and they are gonna start recording a new album soon.