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Photo by Alec Stanley
Heading into 2020, T. Hardy Morris (Dead Confederate, Diamond Rugs) had written an album’s worth of material that he intended to record as a follow-up to 2018’s Dude, The Obscure. With the help of longtime friend/collaborator/producer Adam Landry, songs were demoed and some were even close to completion when the brakes were put on due to the pandemic. With no end in sight for the pandemic and the overall temperature of the U.S. heating up around racial tensions and a contentious election, Hardy decided to set aside the album he has intended on making and write songs that more accurately described where his head was at during 2020. The result is the 10-song The Digital Age of Rome which will be released by New West Records imprint Normaltown Records on June 25.
Hardy and I had a lot to talk about and as a fan of his entire catalog, I wanted him to walk through all the albums he’s been part of throughout his career, including a band that I had been unfamiliar with until just before this Zoom call took place.
I understand that this was not the record you intended to make in 2020 but it came about because of 2020.
HARDY: We had gotten together down here in Athens. A friend of mine had started a new little studio and we were just guinea pigging … I had some demos and he wanted to record some stuff in there and so Adam, my producer, came down and I got the band together and my friend who started the studio engineered it. We recorded maybe 12 or so songs, a handful of them were things I was pretty excited about and there was another handful that were ideas and we were just playing. A lot of them I wanted to take the distance but once Covid took over and we were all in lockdown, it was just a shift in focus in a whole matter of things. It didn’t feel right to pursue those songs at the time. Some of them I’ve started to revisit in the past few weeks, just listening to those demos again. Everything changed, so why wouldn’t that as well?
Listening to the demos that you were working on with 2020 in hindsight, is it weird to listen to the lyrics and where you were pre-pandemic?
HARDY: They are more a little like my old stuff and more nostalgic and personalized. With The Digital Age of Rome, it’s not like I’m trying to preach or speak for anyone else but it’s personalized voicings of bigger ideas than just personal ideas.
How did you record during the pandemic? Were you getting together with people or was everybody recording separately?
HARDY: There was a new recording school, an analog recording school, that was opening up in downtown Athens called Tweed Recording. They couldn’t open although the facility was completely finished and outfitted and done. They were set to open that March, that Spring semester was going to be their grand opening. Because of what happened, it was just sitting idle and a good friend of mine is one of the head engineers of the school. And the guy who opened it, I didn’t know well but I knew he was kind of a fan of my music and my producer, Adam, and the other albums he recorded. It was kind of in his wheelhouse. They teach the updated software stuff but also a focus on tape recording, the whole gamut, not leaving anything out.
Some time went back and I got to thinking about Tweed and I said, “That studio’s just sitting there. It’s obviously not in session.” So I emailed Andrew, I just figured it was new, it would be safe, there was nothing going on downtown. They said, “Yeah, if you take all the precautions, let’s do it.” We were able to go into that studio. I didn’t feel like I was forcing a commercial studio to open up when they didn’t want to. It felt like a safe play and it worked out. It’s a great studio. We were guinea pigging there too because nothing had really been done there. But it wound up sounding really good, they had amazing gear. It was a good experience. Downtown was essentially deserted. Athens is not the busiest of cities but it can sometimes be hard to find a parking place but you just pulled right in, right in front of the studio, walked in. There was a little bit of to-go food happening downtown so you could walk around and do things but there was not much going on at the time of the recordings.
I saw that Faye Webster is on the record. How did you get her to be on the record?
HARDY: She used to live in Athens. I don’t know if she actually lived here or if she was just here a lot. She kind of formed her bands here. I actually got familiar with Faye through my pedal steel player, Matt “Pistol” Stoessel. She was a fan of my early albums and Matt would play with her some times. She’s much younger than me. I think Matt played me some songs and I was like, “This is really cool” and I had a couple of shows coming up, this was years ago, and I said, “You think Faye would want to play on these shows?” Matt said, “She would freak out.” So she played a couple of shows with me opening up and we got to be friends but, as much as anything, we’re peers. I don’t know Faye terribly well, we text a bit, but I’m a fan of hers as an artist. I think she’s really true to herself and really cool and Matt speaks very highly of her. That song, I was like, “She’s got to sing on this.” It seemed like perfect for her voice and she was all about it. We keep in touch and she’s really sweet. I’m proud of her.
Have you thought about any of the good or bad effects that the pandemic has had – or will have – on the music industry?
HARDY: We’ll see as it ages but it feels to me like there’s been a lot of good content, a lot of people making albums like my scenario, making albums they didn’t necessarily intend to make. There’s been a shift in perspective that’s created interesting music and interesting songs. I think everybody felt feelings they’ve never necessarily felt before and from that inevitably is going to come different art, music being one of them. I’m sure painters were painting with colors they hadn’t used before. Everybody was just kind of approaching it in a different way because you had to approachable everything a little differently as 2020 went on, not just the pandemic. There’s a lot that went on the last, we’ll say four years as well. Our language has changed. Everything’s just a little different. Not only do you approach how you’re walking down the street and going to a restaurant differently, inevitably you’re going to approach your music or your craft a little differently. Maybe more focus, maybe more abandon. It depends on your scenario. I think we’re going to look back and see it as a crux where everybody’s not just singing about the same old same old that it was a few years ago.
The other thing I noticed and have gotten pretty excited about the past few months was I noticed how many side players decided to make their own albums because they were stuck at home. Your friend that you’ve only known a drummer for these other bands makes their own album and it’s great. I’m like, “This is better than any of the bands you’ve been in.” These side guys found the time and maybe found the confidence to finally do their own thing. There’s just a lot of music, there’s a lot of people making the leap to put themselves out there and express themselves a little bit more.
I think it’s great. Yes, the music industry is changing so rapidly, it’s really strange – we’ve got streaming that’s taken over and artists aren’t getting paid anything in that paradigm but at the same time, vinyl sales are through the roof. I can see why some artists might get disgruntled the way streaming works. It’s certainly not ideal but I don’t really know what to do about it. It does seem more and more like it’s a young peoples game because touring is where all the money lies. When are you most available to go and do tours? It’s when you’re young. When are you most hyper-creative and energetic? When you’re young. Music’s just going to be young people going at it. Whatever, that’s fine (laughs)
I wondered if we’d see a change in the way bands tour but it looks like many artists are picking up where they left off in 2019.
HARDY: It’s going to be a weird transition back in because everyone is touring right now, whether they’re putting out an album or not. So an artist like myself who has to already be selective about what night you play in what town, because it’s not going to be the most in-demand ticket up against others, I’m going to do some touring as things roll out but I’m also going to be selective. I think the livestream thing, people gave that a go. I think it was good for certain artists and certain charities. I think the livestream thing served it’s purpose but I think a lot of people quickly realized it wasn’t satisfying or gratifying. I enjoyed a few of the ones I watched and other ones I lost my interest pretty quickly. But I don’t see that sticking around in a real meaningful way.
Can you talk about the overall theme of The Digital Age of Rome?
HARDY: Not every song delves into it but it’s a lot of reflection on 2020 and where are we going, do we even know what we’re doing? Does technology necessarily equate with progress? It’s the same game over again. Throughout modern history we make these advances and then we turn around and realize they were a tragic mistake. Pulling fossil fuels out of the ground is just this enormous burst of energy and allows for all this comfort but then, lo and behold, we find out it’s the worst thing we could have possibly done. The earth covers these things for a reason and traps them down. Are we doing the same thing again with our technological advances? We’re going to electric cars, what are we going to do with the batteries? We’re going to mine for all these batteries, we’re going to exploit people and tear down mountains to get more batteries and when they die, we don’t have anywhere to dispose of them. We’re going to put them in the ocean. It’s tragic, really. But then I also think, put humanity back in the stone ages with nothing and give us the opportunity and we’d probably do the exact same thing over again.
I’d like to run through your recorded history, things that are readily available on Spotify, and ask you to give me a thought about the material and maybe a song or two that you really like. But, before we get into the stuff that is readily available, I learned that you were in a band called The Redbelly Band. In the digital age where everything is available to stream, buy or download, there’s very little Redbelly Band music to be found.
HARDY: I think we made CD-Rs of stuff. I would describe that band as the band me and my friends had before we actually tried to write songs. We were just playing. It was a good learning experience but not much of it was of any merit. Certainly Dead Confederate is where we started our first true band. When we were living in Atlanta with Redbelly, some of us lived in the same house. Going from being high school age and just playing around in your home town for fun and then moving to a city like Atlanta, we would go see bands and be like “We need to go and write some songs.” That’s where Dead Confederate came pretty quickly. We started writing songs and gave the band a true name and went from there.
Any chance you’ll put The Redbelly Band stuff on Bandcamp?
HARDY: Probably not. I don’t have any of that archive stuff. Our old bass player has all of the archive stuff and I know he doesn’t really have any interest in doing that.
2008’s Wrecking Ball was my introduction to Dead Confederate and in a blog post I said, “If Soundgarden had started 10 years later and been from the south rather than Seattle, this is what I imagine it would sound like.”
HARDY: We recorded that in Austin, Texas with Mike McCarthy. That was our true first experience as a tight unit. I feel like when we recorded that album, we were pretty close to firing on all cylinders. Everybody was really invested and playing well. I would say “The Rat” and “Heavy Petting” … we had written “Heavy Petting” months and months before we decided to record but all along I knew that was going to be the first song on the album. And then “The Rat” would come right after it. We had this one-two punch already in the chambers from a year before we recorded our first album which means you’ve got some stuff figured out as a band. We had a good idea of what we were and what we wanted to do, just explode Southern Rock from the inside out, just change the feel of it. It was anti-southern Southern Rock.
2010’s Sugar was the next release.
HARDY: We did that with John Agnello in New Jersey. That one was a little more of an adventure. You can tell by my catalog that I never stay in one place very long. We had done some tours with Dinosaur Jr. so the other writer in Dead Confederate, Brantley Senn, and I wanted more guitar solos. We kind of wanted to cheer things up a little bit. The intent of that album was to brighten things up and look at it from a more positive side. There was some new intent to it, major chords over minors a bit but I think “Run from the Gun” and “Giving it All Away” are good tracks from that.
What was it like working with John?
HARDY: It was great. I still keep in touch with John, not a ton but a bit. He’s so positive. He invited J Mascis to play on the record, he took us over to Sonic Youth’s studio and we met Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo and that crowd. He’s just a joy of a guy and loves music so much.
2012’s Peyote People was not intended to be a Dead Confederate album?
HARDY: It was kind a side project within our own band. Brantley had gone to an engineering school so essentially wanted to mess around. We kind of dug a good bit of what we did – a lot of that stuff was like learn the song in the room, do one take. It went really quickly, I think we did that over the course of two nights. But it was fun. Some of stuff stayed around in the live rotation when we were still touring. That was just a quick bang-it-out thing.
2012 also saw the release of the first Diamond Rugs album. I don’t remember much about this side project.
HARDY: You’ve got to check it out. That’s one where, that’s more upbeat. We were kind of like a bar band in the vein of … you can tell by the members. There’s Steve Berlin from Los Lobos, Ian Saint Pé from Black Lips, and John McCauley and Robbie Crowell from Deer Tick. It was John’s brainchild. He had invited me to come over to Nashville to do a session and either write some songs together or record some stuff I had and figure out what to do with it. I hadn’t gone over there to do it and then one of those sessions turned into the band Middle Brother, the album John did with Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. After that, I was like, “Okay, I’m not just going over there to drink beer.” That would have been fun too.
So the next time John hit me up, I said, “Let’s figure it out.” I went over there and Ian came. We didn’t have a band name when we got together, we were essentially almost done with the album when we decided, “Okay, this will be album and we should come up with a name and we should hit the road.” It was really fun and a good experience, we still trade songs every now and then and talk about doing something again but who knows?
2013 sees the last Dead Confederate record, In the Marrow and you also did a solo record, Audition Tapes.
HARDY: We recorded In the Marrow here in Athens and I did Audition Tapes in Nashville at the same studio where we had done Diamond Rugs. That was just a fun experience over there, that’s where I met Adam who has continued to make records with me. I decided maybe this would be the place to record these little back pocket songs that I had never done anything with. That became Audition Tapes. It was just a laidback, easy going setting there. It’s just a little shed studio in his backyard, nothing real fancy about it.
Later that year, we were doing the Dead Confederate record at Chase Park Transduction, the classic Athens studio. I thought both of those albums came out really well. “In the Marrow,” that song I really like and I also like “Slow Poisons,” the opening track. Brantley wrote that song. “Vacations” is a good track. There’s a lot of songs on there I really like. That was probably my second favorite Dead Confederate session. It would probably be my favorite album after Wrecking Ball. We had a different drummer, JJ Bower, working with us on that. He’s so good, great drummer. David Barbe produced it and did a really great job. That one felt like we were all clicking pretty well and we did some tours after that.
We didn’t have a falling out or anything, we just kind of came home from some tours and we didn’t book anything else. People started getting married and having kids. It’s hard to keep a group together like that so I started pursuing solo stuff, not with any intention of “I’m going solo,” it was just a way for me to still have music and recording and performing be a part of my life without all the stresses of having a full band. I don’t think we ever even had a conversation about the band. We still talk all the time, we’re still friends. Everybody just does their thing. It didn’t need to be some big deal with a final show. We just let things go naturally and that’s been good.
There was another Diamond Rugs album, Cosmetics, in 2015.
HARDY: The first one we really liked. I think Steve and Ian started putting the pressure on, “We need to make another record,” so we did. We went over to Nashville and recorded in a couple of different sessions. I like that record too. They were a lot of fun.
You also had a solo record that year, Hardy & The Hardknocks: Drowin on a Mountaintop.
HARDY: Also recorded at Chase Park here in Athens. That’s my solo record, I guess because Dead Confederate was kind of on hiatus at that point, a hiatus that we never returned from, I had gotten quietude out of my system with Audition Tapes and I had done some touring with the 3-piece, I think I just got itchy to hear some drums again. There’s a song on the first Diamond Rugs album called “Country Mile,” it has this grungy verse and then this chorus opens into an upbeat country type thing. So many people that I’m friends with really reacted to that song, they said “You need to make a whole record like that.” I put the band together and that was the attempt with that record, we called it crunge – a hybrid of country and grunge. I think that record came out good. I’m not love with every single song all these years later but I like a lot of it.
2018’s Dude, The Obscure was the last solo record until the new one.
HARDY: I did that over in my friend’s Adam place in Nashville again, in the shed. That one was essentially just me and him. I had a couple of my bandmates come over for certain days but we made that one a lot like we made this one, The Digital Age of Rome, at Tweed. I would have the nugget of the song and then we would do a little more arranging when we got to the studio and he would play bass or whatnot. Maybe my guy would come overdub the bass later but a lot of it was Adam and I feeding off each other, kind of creating this record.
I did want to mention that as I was scrolling through your Instagram account, I saw a photo you posted of a t-shirt that says, “Scott’s dad’s friend went on a road trip with the guy from Foghat’s brother” which was hilarious.
HARDY: I think that was at a show. I took a picture of somebody’s shirt because I thought it was funny.
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