Born from the tumult of spiritual rebirth and worldly rejection, David Eugene Edwards is a man uncomfortable in the skin he considers a mortal restraint. It’s not to say that the man behind the alternative country act 16 Horsepower and the mercurial but no less influential Wovenhand considers himself above this world. Quite the opposite, actually. Edwards has for years now used the reckoning between his Christian beliefs and the world around him as a conduit to create a music that is utterly earnest and unhindered by listener expectation. Wovenhand’s upcoming Refractory Obdurate (Deathwish, Inc.) finds Edwards as loud and commanding as he’s ever been, his voice echoing over the post-rock tide like a modern day Ezekiel summoning the bones to rise up and walk. SfB recently spoke to Edwards about his religious background, its influence on his music today, and more in this special feature interview.
My first question just concerns your relationship to your music, David. Where were you when music found you, and do you see yourself in that same place now after all these years of creating music?
Yeah. At first it was just singing in church. My mother played guitar and sang, so initially I probably heard it from her, and then my grandfather was the preacher, but he led the music as well, so that’s where I first started singing. As time progressed, it was the only thing that I was able to grab ahold of that was usable by me to communicate. [Laughs] And it was only up to a certain point. Of course I liked it. Everybody likes music, right? But, I felt like I could go farther with music as a child than anything else, than anything I could have done at school or through reading or through writing or sports or anything. I knew it was a place where I could live, the music.
Has that changed or evolved in any way for you since those early days singing in church? How sacred is the music to you now, or is it?
It’s changed a lot. Mainly in the fact that I grew up in the constructs that are around me – the way in which music is presented to you. This is the music of the church, and then it’s presented to you like this. And then, of course, there’s other churches that present it in a completely different way, but the way I was raised, those were the wrong ways. We were doing it the right way, other people were doing it the wrong way. Not even talking about the world and its music – that’s a completely different story altogether. This was just within the church itself. And then there was the big argument of what you could listen to and what you couldn’t listen to and anxiety and worry over music that we were getting in from the outside.
The longer I make music, the more I realize that music is not sacred. My music is not sacred. It’s not sacred to me, and that’s what I mean by the constructs that you grew up. I’ve come out of this sort of alternative country world where I play the banjo or I play the accordion, but I don’t play them the way you’re supposed to play them. So the people that play the banjo or that play the accordion, I am like a heretic. Seriously. It’s not a joke. I’m literally a heretic to these people, and not only them but a heretic to rock ‘n roll people as well. I’m pretty much a heretic to everybody. But I never even thought about it. I just do what I like, if you understand, and all the different collection of influences that influenced me musically or whatever for whatever reason that formed what I do, I didn’t think about it. But once you do it, people point at it and say whatever. It’s kind of odd.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re not too terribly concerned with the process of how the music is made, and you kind of distance yourself from that. Is that kind of disconnect something you see as a creative catalyst in itself?
We can go back to the initial question and how I attached myself to music early on. That was where I felt like I could live and communicate to some degree but only to a certain extent, because my ability only goes so far. This distance I have with my own music and this relationship also just has to do with that I’m very unconfident about it. It’s not a really comfortable thing to just pick up a guitar and start playing around the house for people or something. It’s still embarrassing. I’m still an embarrassment to myself. It sounds weird, but this has been the same since I was a child. I can only go so far with my talent, so I live within that, and it is an odd relationship.
But as I mentioned before, the sacredness of the music – of course it’s sacred. Everything God has created, everything good is sacred. If God is a part of it, then it’s sacred, so man is sacred. Every man is a sacred man. And God speaks in different ways at different times in whatever way he wants to. In America if you play this really folky, all wooden instruments and you’re singing, and you dress like an Amish person or whatever, and you’re singing in a certain tone of voice, and the woman is singing with the real airy, lilting innocence – this is a construct, not evidence.
But people look at it as evidence. They say “These people are godly people,” but listen to their music. You can extrapolate this to any society. If you’re listening to music from Egypt, or you’re listening to music from Iran, or wherever, people will say “Oh, we like this, so God is there because we like it. We like the way it sounds, so we’re closer to God,” but that’s not the case. God does what he wants to do. He’s not part of your little construct here. He’s down the street with some guy who doesn’t know how to sing that doesn’t even have a voice. He’s making music with that guy or someone who can only grunt.
Obviously with your background and the value you place on your spirituality as it relates to your music. Do you see your relationship to your religious beliefs conflicting with the rock ‘n roll or punk aesthetic that’s always been associated with the total rejection of religion?
People want to stand up and address things that they see that they don’t agree with. They stand up and they say “This is what’s going on, and we need to do something about this,” and people get together in groups and try to make this happen politically, socially, or however. The conflicts – I mean, the whole idea of punk rock music and rock ‘n roll are the same, which are, for the most part, an act of response to oppression. These are responses to oppression, and there’s many different responses to oppression. Oppression is a problem, so you can’t point at rock ‘n roll and say “Okay, this is bad,” just like everybody else talks about constantly – you have to go to the source of the problem. You can’t put a band-aid on it.
You gotta go find the root problem, and that is the world right now with everyone trying to get to the root problem of whatever it is, whether it’s intolerance or religious fanaticism or whatever. We wanna get to the root problem. What’s the root cause of these people acting like this? So we do all of this, and we meet in this center pavilion and talk about this stuff, but the place that we meet – this is fucking Disneyland. We’re having our little meeting in Disneyland, and maybe you live on the northside of Disneyland, and it’s great over there, and the southside’s great, but we’re living on Disneyland.
The land you’re on does not belong to you. The buildings that you’re walking around on and in, and the roads that you’re driving on were built by slaves that were murdered and not paid and raped, and then you stand there and wanna make these decisions about rock ‘n roll or gay people, or when the church is basically an institutionalized pedophilia ring. All over America. All over the world. You create a problem, then you solve the problem. That’s how this country works. You create a problem, then you solve the problem. You bankroll both sides of the deal, and then you just keep rollin’ on. I have no patience for some guy in a suit that’s gonna come up and tell me anything. I have no patience for it.
I think that’s something you’ve always put forth very earnestly with your music, David. There’s consistently been this anger paired with a spiritual questioning of the world and your perspective of it. When you think about the trajectory of your career, and all the things that you’ve seen and what’s obviously an incredibly hypocritical world in almost every facet, how have you seen what our society or culture values with music and art specifically evolve over the time period since you’ve been involved with it?
I don’t really know. I’m really kind of distracted from it. I just made music, and then all of a sudden we got on a major label, so it was made easy for me when for years and years it wasn’t. But there’s no rhyme or reason behind it. We didn’t have some big push behind us or anything. It was just that somebody took a chance on us, basically. I think every major label is looking for the small, strange band to be part of the resume of the corporation, and that’s not to say that there’s not good people there.
And when I say “good people,” I mean people that are interested in music and people that are interested in what people are doing rather than marketing. There’s nothing wrong with marketing necessarily, either. There’s just artistic people that work with music that don’t make music. That’s the whole idea behind it. Obviously there’s all the people that write about music like we’re doing right now. I’m talking about it, someone’s relaying that to somebody else, and that’s their job. So, they’re either artistic about what they do or they’re just corporate about what they do.
Looking at Refractory Obdurate, there’s that same self-exploration and introspection you’ve always put into your music, but now the sound seems bigger and more commanding than ever. Was there a different approach for this new record than with previous ones?
I used more scripture on this one, like direct scripture. A lot of times I use references or have different scriptures in some way referenced or intermingled seemingly unrelated. But this one had more verbatim use, almost. Like the song “Hiss” is one of the ones that’s already been released, and it’s basically just Isaiah 5 just set to music just kind of putting it up in this kind of format to be communicated in this fashion. I like the way it turned out.
There’s certainly a lot of confrontational material in the Old Testament, just thinking about you mentioning Isaiah. Do you find yourself going more to the Old Testament or the New Testament when writing, or is it a balance of both for you?
I mean, the New Testament is the Old Testament. The Lord is the Lord always. He’s never changed. He’s always been the same. He’s spoken in different ways, but as of now He’s of course spoken with Christ, and that’s the whole point. Just as on the road to Emmaus when Christ is speaking to these men, and they don’t know who He is. He relates to them, Jesus, through the scriptures from Moses until today, so this is the Old Testament. The whole Old Testament is about Jesus. Everything. Every word.
People say “Oh, the Old Testament has some references to Christ and some of these are in the Psalms and some of these are in the messianic prophecies,” these kind of slightly vague messianic prophecies about the Messiah where you can go back and say “Hey look, they’re talking about Jesus here.” This is the way it’s taught in church, and for the most part they only use the Old Testament when they wanna scare you, not realizing that the Old Testament is the Lord Jesus.
All of the Old Testament. Samson, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar – these are all the Lord Jesus. Joseph, Jonah, Job or Elihu – all are the Lord Jesus. This is all about the finished work of Christ, the lamb slain before the foundations of the Earth. This is His story. Yes, He comes in the flesh as the fulfillment of the law which has been expressed the whole Old Testament, but I have a different relationship with the Old Testament than most of the people I know that read the Bible.
What lies ahead for you with Wovenhand this year, and what does the rest of 2014 hold for you?
We go to Europe at this end of this month for about five weeks. At the moment we have no American booking agent. It’s difficult for us in America. It’s difficult for us to have a booking agent because we don’t do a lot there, so it’s difficult for them to keep us on the roster. I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but that’s just what’s happened. [Laughs] We’re gonna put some effort in trying to remedy that and do some shows here. But we’ve always gone to Europe. Since ’95 I’ve been going to Europe because that’s where the people have been interested in what we do for the most part, so we continue to do that. It’s like when people have to go get another job in another part of town. They gotta take a train for an hour and a half to get to their work, because that’s the only place they can find a job. It’s a similar situation, but I love my job, and I love the audience.
Thanks to David for his time.