Over the course of three albums the Lonesome Southern Comfort Company has emerged as a distinct and persuasive voice in the Americana scene, albeit a voice emanating from the borders of Switzerland and Italy. They’ve plotted a somewhat enigmatic course to the heart of a musical genre, built on a minimalism of nagging riffs that hook and snare the attention, while paradoxically there’s an emotive complexity and brooding intensity in some of the layered vocal and instrumental textures. It’s perhaps another contradiction to say that The Big Hunt sounds instantly familiar, yet like nothing else you will hear this year. Beyond doubt, it’s also a boldly brilliant and utterly captivating record that wears its dark and veiled mysteries well.
Part of their enigmatic approach is that all of the CDs, bar the first that simply and starkly bears Lonesome Southern Comfort Company, black on white, don’t have the band’s name and title on the front artwork. Inside the information is minimal too, simply listing the protagonists by their Christian names, John, Duke, Boris and Abraham.
The John is actually John Robianni and Lonesome Southern Comfort Company was actually his solo debut back in 2006, taking shape as a band for the follow up, Charles The Bold. It’s the new release The Big Hunt, however that has our attention and John very kindly agreed to take a little time out to fill in some of the background and unravel just a little of the story so far.
Firstly it comes as no surprise to learn that John has actually spent some time in America, “I lived in San Francisco for a while (between 2003 and 2004) when I was 21. I spent some of the best days of my life there. I travelled by car all around the US and that experience really impressed me and changed my life somehow.” It perhaps serves to underline how a love of American culture and particularly the music has permeated John’s life, despite his fairly remote location in Switzerland, where our earlier introduction to the band suggests the cows outnumber the people.
John suggests, however, that there he’s not alone and they are just a part of a thriving music scene, that sounds ripe for discovery, “Switzerland is definitely a small Country, but the music scene is huge. We have small cities (Fribourg for example: 35,000 inhabitants) with big universities, nice venues and even support from local authorities. I’m sure you’ll like Honey For Petzi, Disco Doom, Magicrays, Rosqo, Kid Ikarus, Favez or folk-oriented bands like The Legendary Lightness, The Sad Riders, John Sars, Sophie Hunger or Mama Rosin. Not to forget our label-mates: Peter Kernel, Camilla Sparksss, Francesca Lago, Kovlo and Nadine Carina. We all live in the same small town and we try to help each other in one way or another. So yes, we are gigging regularly, but it’s not enough. We want more.”
That sign off sounds like a statement of intent, which The Big Hunt backs up with some very fine songs that as previously described have an instant accessibility while still managing to surprise and confound any obvious clichés with unexpected twists and fine details.
Take the opener, When He’s Down. It’s a song for which the words ‘dark’ and ‘brooding’ are entirely appropriate as it simmers with violence as John sings about Stealing cars, dirty motel rooms and delivers the literal punch line “To kick him in with no reason, slam his face against the wall.” The song builds from a nagging acoustic guitar riff and minimal beat laid down with tambourine and kick drum. Layers of rumbling, reverb drenched guitars and synthesizer build like thunderheads, before the song falls away to the calm in the eye of the hurricane, only for the pulsing synth to really make it’s unholy presence felt in the lashing tail of the passing storm. As John explains, “I was on my car, listening to the first version of the song and I realized, “We gotta include an old style techno synth in the middle of the song”. I called Boris and we recorded it in 5 minutes. It was funny.” Inspired more like! Although it’s nice to picture then chuckling at the sheer wilfulness of the soundclash.
The simmering threat of violence or the desperation of some criminal act are recurring themes. The very next track 64 Warwick Way includes the lines “Just a moment of anger,” before suggesting its, “Nothing to feel sorry about.” The title track meanwhile has another fugitive intent on escape as John sings, “I’m gonna cross the state and they’re not gonna catch me, I’m gonna steal a new car and drive to safety.”
As dark as some of this seems, however, it would be wrong to over simplify the intentions behind the songs. Asked about the less than savoury characters and the threat that they carry John explains, “I’m a violent person. No, just kidding (maybe I’m just passive-aggressive). The Big Hunt is quite dark, but not that dark compared to our previous albums. We sing about people who are trying to change their lives. A life of violence (The Big Hunt), a life of working poverty (Wall Street’s Foreign Legion and Rent Song) or simply a poor life (When He’s Down). People trying to escape from their life, build a new future somewhere else. People ready – if needed – to even use violence to achieve their goals and not to be stopped.”
So where does this all come from? All joking aside, clearly John has something about him and he reveals, “Is it autobiographical? Yes, I think so. I worked in a bank for about 10 years. A ‘young, leftist, self-called artist,’ working nine hours a day for a Swiss bank, trading ‘futures’ and selling mortgage loans. I don’t deny my past, but I really started to burn out. That’s why I started writing songs. I quit my job one day with no real plans, but I got lucky: I found a new job in a local newspaper. My dream of becoming a journalist dates back to my childhood. Not a tragic story, I know, but it’s my story.” Well John as Neil Young once sang in the title track of On The Beach, “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”
Trying to describe the sound of The Lonesome Southern Comfort Company, that central balancing act between the often minimalist riffs that are at the heart of the pieces and the intensity of where the songs take them seems key. At times a psychedelic, almost trance like state seems to be induced. Mary Ann for example has an almost buzz-saw droning swirl and 64 Warwick Way has a picked waltz-time arpeggio nagging away throughout. Meanwhile Retreat has the feel of a lysergic country music romp and That 2AM Call, marries a lonesome fiddle with woozy tremeloed guitar and a crunching staccato riff in the mid section. The climax of Wall Streets Foreign Legion is epic, almost apocalyptic, while Rent Song sounds like the Velvets playing the Byrds’ version of The Bells of Rhymney.
When asked about the building blocks of The Lonesome Southern Comfort Company’s sound, John comes up with a list equally generous as his home grown scenesters name checked above. Describing his sound as “Post-country,” asking, “Does that exist already?” He continues, “By the way my favourite artists are Son Volt, Richmond Fontaine (that’s why I’m trying to learn to play pedal-steel guitar), Micah P. Hinson, St. Thomas, Centro-Matic, Bright Eyes, Iron & Wine, Will Oldham and Songs: Ohia. Yes, I’m a fan of early 2000’s Americana. But I love Woody Guthrie, I love Built To Spill, Why?, Dylan, Young, Johnny Cash, Nick Drake, Roy Harper, Roger Waters and Syd Barrett, Slint or the Canadian post-rock wave.”
Amidst all of the enigmas, paradoxes and puzzles John tells a fairly simple tale of ambition and chance that has put The Big Hunt into the spotlight. He explains, “It was 2007 when I started the project. I was playing in a post-rock band at that time and we were having some trouble and difficulties, so I decided to rent a studio, write some new songs, record and publish an album by myself and play it live. But I needed a band, so I called my friend Abraham Cancellier (one of the best guitar players I’ve ever met) – and my old school-mate, ‘Duke’ Di Meco (drums). At the same time I was looking for a pianist and fortunately I found Boris, who is not just a good pianist but an incredible violist (and viola was the sound I was looking for) and a good sound engineer with his own recording studio. That was the bingo moment for us. We recorded a new album (Charles The Bold) and went on our first tour in 2010. At the beginning it was more like “ok, I write the songs and you play what I ask you to play”, but now I trust them. I mean… I trust them a little more. They are now involved in the writing process and you can hear that on the new record.”
As for that name, well that’s even more straightforward, “Do you want to hear the truth? In my room there is a Southern Comfort plaque saying: “Southern Comfort Company, established 1874”. I thought “Ok, it might be a great name for a folk band”. It was 2007 and, as I said before, I was alone but I had that name. I can’t say how many people told me to change it. “It’s too long – complicated – ridiculous”. I don’t care and, anyway, it’s too late to change it now.” By the sounds of The Big Hunt John, you should stick to following your instincts.
Also apparent is the Italian connection. “Lugano, our hometown, is very close to the Italian border, about 20 minutes north of Como and 45 minutes by car from Milan. We speak Italian and we obviously have a lot of contacts with Italy (we watch their TV channels) and the north-italian music scene. The Big Hunt, was mixed at La Sauna, near Varese, by a good friend of ours: Andrea Cajelli.”
You can of course say that the language of music knows no borders and at its best recognises no boundaries. Wafting around the global winds, strands of sound are woven together and will tether themselves to the heartstrings, taking permanent anchor in our conscious minds. Whether in the wide open spaces of the USA of the high-country where Switzerland become Italy, the geography is unimportant. It is the vision and the musical imagination that counts. The Lonesome Southern Comfort Company are proof indeed. As for John’s love affair with America, he simply says, “Yes, sure, I plan to go back there someday.”
Review by: Simon Holland